Welcome back, Buffy-philes! Apologies for the whole “I’ll be back blogging Season Three in December” thing that I promised at the end of last summer. I somehow forgot that the last month of any given year is traditionally a scheduling nightmare for me, with my days and nights taken up by watching awards-bait movies and listing like a torpedoed schooner. I should’ve known better. Anyway I’m back with you now, and shall be for the next three months. I’m planning to cover threeBuffy episodes a week until I’ve completed Seasons Three and Four. And I have to say: after watching my designated three episodes this week, I’m pretty excited to be back on the Buffy beat. It’s going to be a fun summer.
What better way to bring back Buffy than with a shot of a hand coming out of a grave? After all, Buffy is the show that just won’t die, about the things that just won’t die.
As with the start of Season Two, Season Three begins with everything in a state of flux. Buffy’s still self-exiled from Sunnydale, and is now working in a diner under the alias “Anne.” In her absence, Willow, Oz and Xander have taken over the town’s vampire-slaying responsibilities, and though they’re losing roughly half their quarry, at least they’re staying safe. (“We try not to get killed,” Willow promises Giles. “That’s part of our whole mission statement.”) Cordelia’s been vacationing in Mexico all summer, and when she returns, she and Xander can’t seem to get back into a groove with each other, romantically. Joyce has been worried sick about her daughter, and has started to blame Giles for Buffy’s absence and her whole secret life. And Willow is irritated that Oz, for all his genius, is having to repeat senior year. (“Remember when I didn’t graduate?” he asks Willow when he sees her in the hall on the first day of school, and when she reminds him about summer school, he asks, “Remember when I didn’t go?”)
But there’s hope—of a kind—for all our discombobulated heroes. In Sunnydale, the vampires keep rising up out of the ground. If death isn’t permanent, how long can a few bruised feelings linger?
First though: a little angst. While Xander and Willow endure “depressing night” at The Bronze—including the sad acoustica of the long-forgotten indie band Bellylove—their absent friend “Anne” is enduring grab-assin’ customers by day and a lonely L.A. apartment by night. Buffy/Anne finally begins her journey out of self-pity-ville when she meets a lovey-dovey young couple at her diner, and one of the kids—Lily—says she remembers Buffy from Sunnydale, where Buffy helped Lily realize that she was wasting her time in a vampire cult. (See Season Two’s “Lie To Me” for further details.) Then Lily’s boyfriend gets captured by a demon named Ken, who’s been masquerading as a kindly youth pastor with the face of the once-ubiquitous actor Carlos Jacott. Buffy and Lily track Ken back to his lair, where he pushes them through a pit of black goop to another dimension, where he has homeless humans literally toil their lives away. As he leaves the girls to their fate, Ken taunts them a little, saying that they finally got their wish: “To disappear.”
I liked “Anne” a lot more than Season Two’s opener “When She Was Bad,” even though both of them are about making our heroine look annoyingly selfish and jerky. I probably could’ve done without the montage of teen runaways, and without lines like Ken’s “You’ve got the look… like you had to grow up way too fast.” But Buffy recovers her wit fairly quickly in “Anne,” most notably in the scene where she tries to go undercover as a lost soul at Ken’s mission and she tells the hulking man working the front desk about how she looked at herself in the mirror and asked, “Hey, what’s with all the sin?” (“I suck at undercover,” she them admits, before commencing to kick ass.) I also appreciated the contrast to Buffy’s “lost months” and those of her friends, who’ve become so close in her absence that even the return of Cordelia throws off their mojo.
Eventually, Xander and Cordelia are able to get their groove back, after he tells her to “go act bait-y” on their vampire hunt, and snarkily explains the group’s plan as, “The vampire kills you. We watch. We rejoice.” Then a vampire gets between Xander and Cordelia at exactly the right moment and crumbles into dust, forcing them into each other’s arms. Very romantic. And also a sign that that when Buffy returns—as she does in the episode’s final scene—she might eventually be embraced as well. (So long as there are vampires around, anyway.)
In the end, “Anne” is a very clever meditation on adolescent identity. “Who exactly is she?” Joyce asks about Buffy, in a line that nods to Buffy’s new alias and to her general identity crisis in the wake of Angel’s death. Childhood is a time of physical and emotional change, but it’s also about permanence: living in the same house, seeing the same friends, attending the same schools, day after day after day. “Anne”—and the episode that follows—is about what happens when that permanence, that mooring, gets yanked away. “We took her punning for granted,” Xander says about Buffy. Of course they did. They’re kids. They take everything for granted.
“Dead Man’s Party”
And speaking of awkward reunions….
“Dead Man’s Party” completes Buffy’s return to Sunnydale, beginning with her running into Xander (Codename: Nighthawk) and the rest of the makeshift slaying crew in one of the town’s many vampire-infested dark alleys. Then Buffy reconnects with Giles and Principal Snyder—one of whom isn’t so happy to see her. As much as Buffy wants to resume her normal routine of “school and slayage… y’know, kids’ stuff,” everyone else has gotten into a pretty good routine without her. Mom’s in a book club. Sunnydale High is relatively murder-free. Willow and Xander are paired off with Oz and Cordelia. Who needs Buffy anyway?
“Dead Man’s Party” follows a similar pattern to “Anne:” Everything’s off-kilter, and then a crisis spurs our heroine into action and thus restores some sense of normalcy—again, such as it is. In this case the crisis is prompted by a Nigerian mask that Joyce brings home from one of her gallery collections. Buffy describes the mask thusly: “It’s angry at the room. It wants the room to suffer.” Giles is more on-point, mocking Joyce to himself: “Do you like my mask? Isn’t it pretty? It raises the dead! Stupid Americans.”
The dead-raising in question begins with a cat buried in the Summers’ backyard, which Giles brings back to school to study more closely. (Cordelia: “Don’t you like anything regular? Golf?USA Today?”) Then it continues with fresh corpses from hospitals and crime scenes, who rise and converge on the homecoming party that Buffy’s friends are throwing for her. The party is dire enough to begin with—Oz’s band is too loud, the Summers house is crowded with people Buffy doesn’t know, and no one wants to talk about how mad they are at her for leaving—but when the zombies arrive, “dire” becomes “dangerous.”
Much like “Anne,” “Dead Man’s Party” struck me as too overt about its theme—especially when Xander grumbles, “You can’t just bury stuff, Buffy; it’ll come right back up to get ya”—but once again the performances, the staging and the dialogue make even an obvious metaphor more resonant. This episode is a particularly strong one for Alyson Hannigan, who gets to veer from cautiously optimistic to flat-out pissed as Willow deals with the return of her wayward best pal. (Willow’s big speech where she bitches Buffy out for not realizing that her friends might be having troubles too is something of a tour-de-force for Hannigan.)
And maybe its because I’ve got Rachel Getting Married and the most recent episode of Breaking Bad on the brain, but I kept thinking that all the business between Buffy and her mom and Buffy and her friends was a little like an intervention. Buffy’s like an addict who just got of rehab and wants to prove to everyone that she can be just as lovable and no-drama as she was before the drugs ruined her. But she’s not going to get off that easy. Zombie-fighting might bring everyone together temporarily, but as Joyce reminds Buffy, “You made some bad choices. You just might have to live with some consequences.”
“Faith, Hope & Trick”
If the first two episodes of Season Three showed anything, it’s that our core ensemble has become nicely rounded-out since the end of Season Two. With Oz in the picture, Joyce in the know, and Cordelia much less dim, there’s more functional members of the slaying circle, which leads to a more complicated and entertaining rhythm to the interplay. The opening scene of “Faith, Hope & Trick” is a marvelous case-in-point. Oz, Cordelia and Xander are easing Willow through her anxieties over participating in the senior ritual of having lunch off-campus. Oz is following Willow’s suggestion that all the boyfriends and girlfriends “uncouple” before they have their picnic with the unattached Buffy across the street from campus. Willow’s encouraging Buffy to get active in the dating scene again, perhaps by doing “that thing with your mouth that boys like.” Everyone is at their sharpest, wittiest, and friendliest. They’re a pleasure to be around.
So, naturally, Joss Whedon and company decide to shake things up.
As indicated by the title “Faith, Hope & Trick” introduces three new characters to the Buffyverse. (And reintroduces another, though he’s not mentioned in the title.) In order, let’s meet…
-Faith. While chilling at The Bronze, Buffy spots the telltale signs of a girl about to get lured by a vampire. The gang follows the girl into the alley, where they see her turn the tables on the vampire quite decisively. This is Faith Lehane, a vampire slayer from Boston, in town to meet Buffy (and make our heroine question her calling). Xander’s happy to see Faith because she tells the most awesome stories about how slaying makes her “hungry and horny” and how she once saved a church youth group while she was completely naked. (Xander: “They should film that story and show it every Christmas.”) Joyce is happy to see Faith because she thinks that Faith might take over Buffy’s patrolling duties and ease a mother’s nerves. (Joyce: “I’ve tried to march in The Slayer Pride Parade, but I don’t want you to die.”) But Buffy is not so happy to see Faith, because the new girl’s wild spirit and reckless attitude toward danger seems likely to get everyone around her killed. (Buffy: “She’s not playing with a full deck. She has almost no deck. She has a 3.”)
-Hope. Specifically Scott Hope, a cute boy who likes Buffy and that Buffy likes back, though their relationship seems doomed by the fact that she’s basically Spider-Man, and has to run off to fight evil right when they’re mid-flirt. Also it doesn’t help that he buys her a ring that reminds her of Angel, who’s been haunting her dreams. Buffy wants to live a normal life, but her Angel experience takes “once bitten, twice shy” to a whole new level. Meanwhile, Giles has been cleverly pretending to devise a binding spell for Acathla in order to get Buffy to spill the details of what exactly happened between her and Angel in the Season Two finale. Finally she tells Giles and Willow that Jenny’s soul-restoring spell worked, and that when she killed Angel and sent him to Hell, it was the man she loved who died, not the creep who tormented her for half a season. Finally getting this off her chest seems to embolden Buffy, who successfully completes a “let’s go out sometime” conversation with Scott.
-Trick. That would be Mr. Trick to you. Arriving from D.C. with an ancient vampire named Kakistos (or as Buffy mishears it, “kissing toast,” or “taquitos”), the slick, forward-thinking Mr. Trick has an inclination to set up shop in Sunnydale, where the death-rate is appealingly high, though his boss would rather he focus on their mission, which is to hunt and kill Faith. As with Spike last season, it appears that the modernized Mr. Trick has the right idea. He survives the episode, while Kakistos gets offed by an enormous stake.
-Angel. Hey, Angel’s back! More on that in a moment.
I was pretty impressed with “Faith, Hope & Trick,” from the way the Buffy team is keeping the season’s master-plot moving swiftly to the way they inject a few wonderful bits of horror style. (I’m thinking mainly of the horrifying image of a burger mascot’s open mouth, right after Mr. Trick dines on the guy working the drive-through window; and the cool overhead shots when Buffy and Faith flee Kakistos the first time.) They’re ratcheting up the intensity awfully quick here in Season Three, and the surprise arrival of a naked Angel in the episode’s epilogue seemed like Whedon’s way of announcing that all the season’s main introductory stuff is over. The story starts now.
A very strong start to the season, yes? I have only two minor qualms. Aside from those few shots I mentioned in “Faith, Hope & Trick,” the horror elements of Buffy are a little too muted here in the early going. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve been conditioned by this point not to feel any anxiety about the run-of-the-mill baddies, since I know that the really scary ones are waiting in the wings. Even Kakistos wasn’t much of a threat. Yes, Buffy and Faith had to stab him a few times to kill him, but that’s what happens when you face the Big Boss at the end of a level.
My other qualm involves the quick reappearance of Angel. I knew it was coming eventually—and having David Boreanaz in the opening credits of the first three episodes was kind of a tip-off too—but given how wrenching his death was for all concerned, it seems like a little bit of a cheat to bring him back so soon. Still, the story’s moving with such assurance right now that I’m going to trust that Whedon knows what he’s doing here, and that he’s not just trying to make the most of an actor’s contractual obligations.
-A rallying cry from the school’s secretly gay football player: “If we can focus, have discipline, and not have so many mysterious deaths, Sunnydale is gonna rule!”
-Ken’s last words: “This is the price of rebel…arrrrrrrrgh!”
-“Want to see my impression of Gandhi?… Y’know, if he was really pissed off?”
-Every time I heard the name “Lily” on the season premiere, I kept looking around for Alyson Hannigan.
-Maybe I saw this wrong, but when Buffy was talking to Lily on the street, the Los Angeles Timesnewspaper box behind them looked like it had stickers on it blocking out certain letters, leaving only “Angel.” Intentional? Or am I just looking too hard for Angel-cues?
-The video quality on the Season Three DVDs is still disappointing. Does it ever improve?
-Also still a distraction: the blatant stunt-doubling whenever Buffy has a fight scene. I hope that’ll get more seamless as time goes by too.
-New opening credits sequence for Season Three. I definitely miss “witch hands” (they even get rid of the screech cue after the first couple of episodes), but I’ve decided to make “playing guitar along with Oz” my new opening credits gesture.
-Cordelia makes dip for Buffy’s homecoming party because dip involves “stirring, not cooking.”
-Principal Snyder on Buffy’s non-high-school options: “Hot Dog On A Stick is hiring. You’d look so cute in that hat.”
-I was anxious to see Eliza Dushku and was surprised by how different she looks and acts as Faith versus how she looks and acts on Dollhouse. I know Dushku has her supporters and detractors but right now for me she’s… uh, five-by-five. Whatever that means.
- Giles doesn’t get an invite to the Watcher’s retreat. He misses the kayaking.
-Even though these episodes aired only 11 years ago, these kids seem to exist an entirely different world from the one we live in now. Like whenever they need to reach each other and they have to physically go to wherever the person they’re looking for might be. No cell phones. Weird.
-A quick reminder that I’m watching these episodes for the first time, and that even though I have some general knowledge about the direction the series is headed, I don’t really know specifics. If you want to talk about big things to come, I’d prefer you include a spoiler warning, and/or try to limit those posts to one or two threads. I won’t get indignant if you slip up, but it would be cool to retain some sense of surprise.