“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Season 3 (1998-99, The WB) is about the end of a first love (Buffy and Angel’s romance), and it also marks my first love: It’s the first time I was completely hooked on all 22 episodes of a TV season. To this day, I think it’s the greatest single season of TV, although I’m biased as we all are toward our first love.
The tension and excitement of the climactic stretch of episodes plays out fine when re-watched on DVD, but I’d argue the experience was actually heightened back in ’99. The WB postponed both “Earshot” and “Graduation Day, Part 2” until the summer due to the Columbine shootings, something that infuriated me at the time. In retrospect, I can understand the “Earshot” delay — Xander makes at least one too-soon reference to school shootings — but I’ll never understand the latter: “GD2” is about the Sunnydale High student body banding together to fight an unambiguously evil Mayor — it’s violence entirely for the causes of self-defense, justice and, well, saving the world.
That decision made me feel like the WB itself didn’t understand “Buffy,” and my friends who didn’t watch “Buffy” obviously didn’t get it. Such was my respect for Season 3 that I judged people on whether or not they were a “Buffy” fan. If they were, I knew they were a quality human being. Today, TV is so huge (even beyond the networks) and word of mouth about good shows spreads so quickly that it’s easy to find someone who watches one of your favorite shows. Back then, to like “Buffy” was to be in a select club.
The club’s online hangout was The Bronze. The web back then wasn’t what it is today — there was no Wikipedia, Facebook, blogs or content-laden magazine cites; IMDB was around, but it didn’t have a TV section. But there was this threaded posting board at The Bronze for like-minded people who “got it” — and I fondly recall playing “quote games,” where you’d guess the character and episode (That wouldn’t work now because you could easily cheat using a Google search). Also, Joss Whedon himself would often comment there; fan-showrunner interaction is common now, but it was rare and exciting then.
Today, “Buffy” Season 3 is hardly a secret, but it’s still great. Here are my rankings of the 22 episodes — some stand out from the pack, but there’s really not a bad one in the bunch.
1. “The Prom” (episode 20, Marti Noxon) — This episode made me cry the first time I saw it (and on the half-dozen viewings in the summer of 1999), because I believed in true love like Buffy and Angel’s. Today, I recognize my youthful naïveté, yet I still find it impossible to not get teared up during the final sequence where Angel comes back for one last dance to the Sundays’ cover of “Wild Horses” (right after Buffy touchingly receives the Class Protector award). And actually, that’s just the grace note to an episode where Noxon plays the ol’ Buffy-and-Angel chords flawlessly, starting with Buffy’s hopeful notion that she can add some mirrors and get her own drawer at Angel’s place, leading through the sewer break-up scene, and reaching a crescendo when Buffy cries in Willow’s arms and tells her “Right now, I’m just trying to keep from dying.”
If you’ve had your heart broken, you’ll relate; if you haven’t, well, Buffy gives you an idea what the pain feels like. And it’s interesting to note that while Buffy sending Angel to hell in Season 2 doesn’t parallel real teens’ experiences, the break-up with your first love does. The super-quick flashback scene showing Tucker’s motivations (“Will you go to the prom with me?” “No.”) also rings true. “The Prom” perfectly caps off three years of Buffy-Angel pain, but that Tucker clip is just as perfect in its own way.
2 and 3. “Graduation Day, Parts 1 and 2” (21 and 22, Joss Whedon) — The Evil Faith arc is wrapped up with the best fight scene in the show’s history, while the Buffy-Angel relationship concludes with an overhyped vampire-draining-a-Slayer sequence. (I know vampire fiction fans love those scenes, but I don’t watch “Buffy” for the vampires and blood. I watch it for interesting characters who happen to be vampires.) But the centerpiece of the Season 3 finale is the graduation ceremony that marks the end of our time at Sunnydale High. Whereas Season 2 ends with a surprise, Season 3 ends with — to quote Giles — “a synchronicity that almost borders on predestination.” Of course the students blow up the high school. Of course the principal gets eaten. Of course the episode ends with Oz noting that they survived not the just battle, but high school in general. Yet it’s as satisfying as it is inevitable.
The summer after Season 3, I remember talking with a friend about how much we would miss the library in the seasons to come. I don’t think I’m alone among “Buffy” fans in saying that I feel nostalgic for Sunnydale High more so than my own school. Some might argue that’s a reason for concern about my psychological health, but for the purposes of this review, I’d argue that it demonstrates how successful Whedon & Co. were at giving us a high school — and high schoolers, even if the actors were well into their 20s — that was both universal and unique.
4. “The Zeppo” (13, Dan Vebber) — Just as Darin Morgan came out of nowhere to turn “The X-Files” on its ear with “Humbug,” Vebber gives us a totally new kind of “Buffy” episode here. In the A-plot-turned-B-plot, he shows how the plot of “Buffy” is nothing but clichés and spectacle when it’s not elevated by metaphors and our investment in the characters, essentially doing a stripped-down retelling of “Prophecy Girl.” And in the B-plot-turned-A-plot, Xander goes through an “American Graffiti”-style yarn, only instead of it being his last night of high school, it’s his last night on Earth (if he fails to get Jack to defuse the bomb, or if the Scoobies fail to close the Hellmouth). Xander’s affected stab at coolness, a vintage car, doesn’t get him immediate cool points, but it is the catalyst for a wild ride of new experiences — wheel man for a gang of dead guys, sex with Faith, a standoff over a ticking bomb –that ultimately give him genuine confidence.
Admittedly, “The Zeppo” overstates Xander’s uselessness to the gang (it could easily be argued that he brings more to the table than Oz or Cordelia; and what about his military knowledge?) and understates how much confidence he had to begin with (his ability to quip under pressure, even in this episode, is an unsung quality). But it’s a rare feat to deliver an essential character hour while also cleverly commenting on TV storytelling structure. It’s a shame that Vebber never did another “Buffy” episode after “Lovers Walk” and “The Zeppo” (“Buffy’s” loss would be “Futurama’s” gain), but he certainly left his mark and perhaps even influenced Whedon to try off-format episodes such as “Hush,” “Restless” and “Once More, With Feeling,” and maybe even this next entry …
5. “Doppelgangland” (16, Whedon) — Although not as artistically layered as “The Zeppo,” Willow’s answer to that Xander-centric episode makes up for its thematic simplicity by being the funniest episode of the series up to this point (maybe ever), and an Alyson Hannigan showcase to boot. Part of the reason for “Buffy’s” greatness is that it always plays to its strengths: Vamp Willow was a hit in “The Wish,” so Whedon gives us even more of the character here, and Hannigan is deliciously entertaining as confidence-lacking “old reliable” Willow, playfully wicked Vamp Willow, and Willow pretending to be Vamp Willow.
As for the humor, where to begin? My personal favorite is a take on an age-old joke: Angel bursts into the library to tell everyone that Willow is dead, says “Oh, hi Willow,” then after a beat says “Wait a minute …” Willow observes that her doppelganger is “evil, skanky and kind of gay,” Buffy assures her that the demon isn’t a reflection of the real person, and Angel says “Well, actually …” Speaking of building on what works, it’s possible that Hannigan’s performance as Vamp Willow inspired Whedon to make Willow gay in Season 4 and turn her dark in Season 6 — for better or worse. But those are complaints for another day. I had a smile on my face from start to finish when re-watching this episode.
6. “Lovers Walk” (8, Vebber) — This beautiful treatise on the nature of love explores the heartbreak, ecstasy, emptiness and fullness of love through four relationships. Spike, who sees it and tells it like it is, sums things up nicely in regards to Buffy and Angel: “You’re not friends. You’ll never be friends. You’ll be in love till it kills you both. … Real love isn’t brains … It’s blood screaming inside you to work its will.” Just as Angel and Buffy can’t have what they want (due to Angel’s curse), Willow and Xander don’t know what they want — until the powerful moment when Cordelia and Oz walk in on them kissing. Then Willow realizes all she wants is for Oz to talk to her again. Although “Lovers Walk” also has plenty of dark comedy (via Spike, natch), an awesome fight scene (Angel throws a vamp in a garbage can, and Buffy skewers two vamps with one stake) and a happy ending for Spike (he resolves to torture Dru until she loves him again), it’s ultimately defined by that final montage where all six characters are alone and sad. This is the first “Buffy” episode that made me cry, because like Spike, I’m love’s bitch (but at least I’m man enough to admit it).
7 and 8. “Bad Girls” (14, Douglas Petrie) and “Consequences” (15, Noxon) — This two-parter launches Faith’s fall to the dark side and is a rare case where the overly cited “slippery slope” theory applies. At the same time, it shows that while Buffy and Faith have the same powers and abilities, only one of them is actually heroic. Whereas Buffy fights for good because she believes in the cause, Faith fights for good because that’s what she happened to be called for. Luckily for the forces of good, she likes slaying, so there’s no conflict — until she accidentally kills a human. When Buffy presses the issue, Faith’s argument is sound: 1, It was an accident, and 2, they can’t report it to the police, because they have to keep their Slayer status a secret. When Faith tells Buffy “I don’t care” at the end of “Bad Girls” (which features my all-time favorite Giles line: “If it’s someone to scrub those hard-to-reach areas, I’d like to request you kill me now”), it leads into “Consequences,” where a defensive, vaguely apologetic Faith slides into evil step-by-step, starting by telling Giles that Buffy killed the man (Giles immediately knows she’s lying).
With that act, she severs ties with her closest allies and essentially becomes a free agent holding a grudge against her former team, and the Mayor capitalizes on this. It’s particularly tragic because the former loner Faith had been bonding with Buffy. Faith’s arc works because of Eliza Dushku’s ability to waver between wounded and scary; even when she’s becoming more dangerous, she’s still sympathetic. Contrast this with Anakin Skywalker killing a bunch of kids in “Revenge of the Sith” — we immediately lose all sympathy for him because he makes a selfish choice that hurts others. Early in the game at least, Faith is reacting to defend herself, and people get hurt only because they are in the crossfire. (“Star Wars” says fear eventually leads to suffering, but “Buffy” shows it more effectively. That’s not to say “Buffy” doesn’t get mythologically symbolic: Faith wears white in “Bad Girls,” black in “Consequences.”)
Even this early in her downfall, the seeds of Faith’s redemption are planted when Angel captures her and they have the first of many heart-to-hearts that will eventually lead to the current “Angel & Faith” Season 9 comic book. The Faith stuff is so compelling that it would be forgivable if everyone else was benched for a couple weeks, but Petrie and Noxon also introduce other key threads here. On the plot side, the Mayor becomes invincible (in a classic visual gag, he checks it off his to-do list); on the sad side, Willow feels distant from Buffy, and then from Xander, who meanwhile gets burned by Faith; and on the funny side, Wesley and Cordelia are attracted to each other (adult-student relationships are not usually played for laughs, but since Charisma Carpenter is so obviously not 17 years old, I think it’s OK to giggle).
9. “Gingerbread” (11, Jane Espenson and Thania St. John) — This episode keeps getting more and more bizarre until it reaches “love it or hate it” territory. I imagine there are some people who dismiss “Gingerbread” as a silly standalone, but I think it’s a witty portrait of how parents can fail to understand their kids and how a community can have good intentions but end up turning into a dangerous mob. Right off the bat, Espenson uses the series’ oversights in its favor: Joyce never slays with Buffy, Amy isn’t in many episodes, and we never see Willow’s mom. In this bizarro-“Buffy,” Joyce joins her daughter on patrol; Amy’s suddenly eating lunch with the gang; and hey, Willow has a mom. The latter is the most sad: Mrs. Rosenberg knows next to nothing about her daughter, labeling her an “age group” (her daughter would prefer “Willow group”) and commenting on her “new” haircut five months late. In a wider sense, the locker searches and the banning of Giles’ books are harrowing, and — again — sadly reflective of reality.
Kind of like “Band Candy” (also by Espenson), Buffy is the adult and Joyce is the child here. Although Joyce’s approach (banding the whole town against monsters) makes sense on paper, Buffy’s approach (keeping the monster-fighting to a small a group) is more effective. The Mothers Opposed to the Occult members are under the influence of a demon, but again, the real-world parallel is clear: Well-meaning groups becoming as big of a problem as what they are fighting against. Nonetheless, Buffy briefly latches onto her mom’s argument that Slaying is fruitless (“No fruit for Buffy,” Buffy laments). Angel, having turned over a new leaf since “Amends,” tells Buffy that they fight not to win, but “because there’s things worth fighting for.” It’s one of my favorite “Buffy” quotes. (Then again, so is: “And some of you will be fish. Yes, you in the back. You’ll be a fish.” Also: “Did I get it? Did I get it?”) Joyce, Sheila and MOO may get the headlines and feel good about themselves, but it’s those who fight in the shadows, without recognition, who are the real heroes; I know that’s the theme of the whole season, but it’s nicely crystallized here.
10. “Earshot” (18, Espenson) — Something “Buffy” does so well in early seasons (and loses touch with in the too-comedic later seasons) is blend comedy and drama within single episodes, single scenes, single moments. “Earshot” is a perfect example. On one hand, I smile at Buffy’s reading of her friends’ minds and her facial reactions to Xander thinking about sex, Wesley thinking about Cordelia, Oz getting philosophical, Cordelia saying exactly what’s on her mind, and Buffy’s mom recalling having sex with Giles. On the other hand, I recognize the threat of Buffy going insane from this new power — unlike Sookie on “True Blood,” Buffy can’t filter out the thoughts; she is bombarded by everyone’s.
Also, the gravity of school shootings hangs palpably over “Earshot” in the form of inappropriate quips from the gang and, of course, Jonathan climbing atop the clock tower with a high-powered sniper rifle. As for that final act, it’s a huge cheat: Despite outward appearances, Jonathan has no intention of shooting anyone below; he just wants to kill himself. But I forgive the weak twist because the Buffy-Jonathan exchange preceding it is outstanding (fun quote: “Sometimes my life manages to suck beyond the telling of it”). The biggest thing Buffy learns from her mind-reading is something we all struggle to learn: We spend way too much time worrying what other people think of us, because the truth is that no one else is thinking about us; paradoxically, they are all too busy worrying about what other people think of them. And, indeed, even after Buffy’s speech, Jonathan doesn’t grasp what she told him (just like Amy failed to learn from her mom’s abuse of witchcraft), as we’ll see starting with Season 4’s “Superstar.”
11. “Amends” (10, Whedon) — “Buffy’s” only pure Christmas episode takes a breather to show us scenes from Angelus’ sordid past peppered in with cute little moments — Faith protests too much that she has “that party to go to,” Willow says “Hey guys, what’re we doing?” right after Xander laments the gang’s pathetic social life, and Willie the Snitch compliments Xander on his intimidation tactics. There’s also a “Scoobies researching in the library” montage that cuts right to the heart of what I love about “Buffy’s” high school years. All of it feels cozy and Christmas-y, and then it’s capped by that perfect scene on the bluff overlooking Sunnydale: Angel wants to die, Buffy doesn’t want him to die, and then the choice is taken away from both of them because the sunrise is blocked by the Powers That Be. This meteorologically ridiculous ending gets a free pass because of the great, tearful performances by Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz, and the beautiful score by Christophe Beck atop a montage of everyone discovering the snow.
12. “Choices” (19, David Fury) — “Well, this is exciting, isn’t it?,” the Mayor says. “Clandestine meeting by dark of night, exchange of prisoners. I feel like we should all be wearing trench coats.” “Choices” is an example of a TV show borrowing a cliched movie plot — in this case the espionage thriller — but giving it fresh life simply because characters we already love are involved (it’s deadly serious business when Faith pulls a knife on Willow). This being “Buffy,” Fury takes the character stuff a step beyond what the formulaic plot gives us. The Mayor gives a monologue about how the Buffy-Angel relationship will never work out (the Mayor and Spike would get along great). Then Buffy is thrilled when Willow tells her they’ll both be going to UC-Sunnydale next fall. High school-set TV series always have to go through the awkward step of having everyone move on to the local college after graduation, but “Buffy” handles it logically: Buffy is stuck in Sunnydale, of course, but Willow chooses to stay because she feels fighting evil is a worthy calling. She decides to do what she wants, because it’s something she believes in — that’s an atypical amount of conviction for a high schooler, but then again, Willow isn’t typical. More typical of high school grads, Xander doesn’t know what he wants to do for a living. I like that different outlooks on post-school life are represented here.
13. “Dead Man’s Party” (2, Noxon) — In addition to checking zombies off the classic monster list, this episode uses the risen dead as metaphors for burying one’s problems. “You can’t just bury stuff, Buffy,” Xander says. “It’ll come right back up to get you.” As a viewer, part of me wants to just revel in the happy reunions as Buffy returns to Sunnydale, but what makes this a great episode is that her return doesn’t go smoothly. Touching on the phenomenon that you can never go home again (because all your old friends will have moved into new routines), Buffy feels ignored by the ol’ gang.
Springing from this conflict are two of the cutest Buffy-Willow scenes in the series: Both characters (plus me) get teared up as Willow says “You were my best friend; I didn’t have anyone to talk to about all this scary life stuff.” And after the hootenanny-slash-zombie-home-invasion, the episode fades into the closing credits with Buffy and Willow playfully insulting each other like only besties can do. Noxon, who has come a long way since “Bad Eggs,” does a nice job of balancing the points of view. Buffy was indeed being selfish by running away — I know losing Angel was painful, but shouldn’t the thought of the Scoobies slaying vampires on their own have made her worry just a little bit? But then I want to spring to Buffy’s defense when everyone starts yelling at her. Ultimately, everyone on “Buffy” is too much of a typically flawed human for me to stay mad at them for long.
14. “The Wish” (9, Noxon) — Writers like character arcs; actors like to play different characters. In “The Wish,” Noxon finds a way to appease both camps. The episode illustrates how Buffy and the Scooby Gang have made each others’ lives better by showing — through an alternate reality brought on by vengeance demon Anya (welcome, Anya!) — what life would be like if they had never met. And the actors get to have a lot of fun: Buffy is a cold-blooded Slayer based out of Cleveland (I’d be interested to meet the alternate Watcher who broke Buffy’s spirit and molded her into a one-woman army), and most notably, Xander and Willow are vampires. Although Buffy looked kind of goofy as a vampire in Season 1’s “Nightmares,” Nicholas Brendon’s face perfectly morphs into vamp features, and Hannigan particularly shows her range as the sadistic Vamp Willow, who enjoys torturing the captive Angel.
This “what if?” yarn is kind of hard to rewatch because it’s so gloomy; however, there’s no denying the power of the montage — backed by an all-female chorus — where Angel gets dusted, Buffy kills Xander, Oz kills Willow and the Master kills Buffy. Although this is a dark episode, one could argue that it’s upbeat in a way. Rather than everyone lamenting how horrible their lives are, it shows how much worse things could have been. The gang may sometimes dream of a better world, but this episode flips the script and argues that they are already living in it. Not that we should pretend everything is sunshine and roses, but “The Wish” is a nice reminder to look on the bright side now and then.
15. “Homecoming” (5, David Greenwalt) — Buffy just wants to be homecoming queen, but she’s kidnapped — along with Cordelia, mistaken for Faith — and thrown by Mr. Trick into Slayerfest ’98, a “Most Dangerous Game”-style event in the woods outside of town. It’s a more mature, amped-up riff on Season 1’s “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date”: This time, Buffy isn’t whiny about the situation (Cordelia is, though); the Slayer knows it’s her job, but darn if it isn’t annoying. It also cribs from Season 1’s “Prophecy Girl” in that Buffy get all dressed up for a formal event then has to fight for her life (by “The Prom,” she will have learned to change into her dress after the slaying). This leads to the classic image of Buffy and Cordy arriving at the coronation with their pretty red and green dresses dirty and torn (“Oh god, what did you do to each other?” Xander asks).
The real appeal of “Homecoming,” though, is that Xander and Willow’s “clothes fluke” leads to their buried feelings for each other rising to the surface at the same time. Yay! Except that — whoops — we’ve started to like Oz and Cordy by this point, and so have Willow and Xander. I always thought Willow and Xander should’ve gotten together in about the sixth season, but Whedon’s ill-advised reimagining of Willow as not being attracted to men canceled that idea. As such, Xander-Willow ‘shippers like me have to take what we can get from this episode and the three that follow. Also noteworthy is the in-the-flesh introduction of the germaphobe Mayor, teased for so long in throwaway dialogue. He’s entertainingly played by Harry Groener, although the wacky revelations (he’s obsessed with cleanliness, and he knows about the demon underworld) don’t play as well on repeat viewings as the Scooby Gang stuff.
16. “Anne” (1, Whedon) — In some stories, you have to figure out the metaphorical meaning; not so in “Anne,” in which the subtext is the text. We see an alternate-dimension steel factory where homeless L.A. kids are literally worked to death, but we’re never told what the purpose of the place is, other than to function as a metaphor (ultimately, it’s a sketchy one; for a more immersive exploration of homeless teens, see the Christmas episode of “My So-Called Life”). Of course, this is a hero-centered episode, and it’s a fine reintroduction: It’s cool to see Buffy deliver the iconic line “I’m Buffy, the vampire slayer. And you are?” and be framed in that great opening-credits shot where she pauses amidst slicing up demon attackers in a cute hoodie.
As with previous episodes (including the Season 2 premiere), Buffy rejects being the Chosen One, and when Lily (last seen as a vampire cultist in “Lie to Me”) asks for her help finding her missing boyfriend, Buffy just wants to be left alone to wallow and dream about Angel. Interestingly, “Anne” shows that a Slayer can escape her destiny — Buffy had successfully hid out in L.A. all summer. But Buffy’s real curse isn’t that she’s a Slayer, it’s that she’s a good person. Her true superpower here is inspiration: Lily is as meek as they come, but seeing Buffy’s example, she’s ready to make a go at taking care of herself.
17. “Helpless” (12, Fury) — What could’ve been a heavy-handed story is saved by the performances of Gellar and Anthony Stewart Head, especially in the scene where Buffy is crushed when she finds out Giles is behind her loss of Slayer strength (“I don’t know you,” she says in conclusion). It’s impossible to watch this episode and not be disgusted by Giles drugging Buffy (especially since the Watchers’ Council’s test of pitting the weakened Slayer against a nasty vampire is incredibly stupid on about 10 different levels). Of course, when Giles gets fired, we like him again. And we hate the Council, whose power-hungry idiocy will come into play in future episodes; in retrospect, I wish the Council would’ve been shown to be more competent.
Despite the serious treatment of the father-daughter relationship at the heart of the show, writer Fury finds his comedic “Buffy” groove for the first time (the clunky “Go Fish” was his only previous effort). A tender speech from Angel about how he saw Buffy’s heart ends with them both commenting on how gross the story was, if taken literally. And Fury has no qualms about breaking up the most painful Buffy-Giles spat in the show’s history by having Cordelia obliviously walk in (yet not going too far with the joke; Buffy asks for a ride home and Cordelia tenderly obliges).
18. “Revelations” (7, Petrie) — Despite the title, this episode previews future events more so than revealing secrets (the cat out of the bag is that Buffy is seeing Angel). The episode ends with a lingering shot of Faith alone in her dingy hotel room (small it may be, but still, how does she pay for it?) right after almost telling Buffy something. What was Faith going to say? That’s one thing that’s never revealed, but I imagine the course of the series would’ve changed if Faith would’ve had a nice heart-to-heart with Buffy; Faith feeling like an outsider will have consequences down the road. Also, Angel and Faith meet for the first time; she tries to kill him. And Buffy and Faith fight for the first time. “Revelations” is also our introduction to the Watcher’s Council; really, Giles probably should’ve called the Council to confirm after Gwendolyn Post shows up in Sunnydale claiming to be Faith’s Watcher (I admit that I, too, was fooled on my first viewing, though).
19. “Faith, Hope & Trick” (3, Greenwalt) — Again, a second Slayer is brought in as a foil for Buffy, but Faith is a 180 from Kendra. Whereas Kendra’s by-the-handbook approach painted Buffy as out of control, Faith’s sheer joy of slaying vamps paints Buffy as the responsible one. It’s difficult to say whose approach to slaying — gung-ho (Faith) or get-the-job-done (Buffy) — is better, and I imagine that’s intentional on the writers’ part. Faith (played with zest by Dushku) — who, interestingly, stakes left-handed and punches right-handed — shakes things up right away and makes an impression on the Scoobies: Xander can’t get enough of her stories of slaying in the nude, and Willow briefly picks up on her habit of calling Buffy “B.” In a twist that’s still surprising on repeat viewings, we realize in the final act that the heretofore invincible Faith is terrified by Kakistos, the ancient vampire who had tortured her Watcher. Of course, the fact that Faith runs hot and cold, confident and scared, should be a hint of the trouble to come.
20. “Band Candy” (6, Espenson) — “Buffy” largely gets back to “high school is hell” stories in Season 3, where the teens are the put-upon heroes and the adults just don’t get it. But “Band Candy” — an amusing first effort from Espenson, who would develop a reputation as the show’s go-to writer for comedy — flips the script. When addictive candy sold door-to-door makes everyone revert to immaturity, the town is left wide open for a demon invasion. Things never progress that far, and the stakes don’t really seem that high (an unfortunate side effect when the show leans toward comedy). Even the idea of a giant sewer demon (very similar to the one from “Reptile Boy,” only now the special effect is done with bad CGI) eating babies is amusing rather than horrifying. Buffy, unlike we the viewers, isn’t amused by everyone reverting to age 16; it’s a scary thing to have no adults in charge of anything (and it’s not just because Giles and Joyce keep smooching). Granted, the Mayor — who, like any good mega-villain, ducks out when Buffy appears on the scene — will eventually become the ultimate untrustworthy politician, but for these 44 minutes, we see the chaos that can result when the structure of society disintegrates.
21. “Enemies” (17, Petrie) — A twist ending can elevate a story — “The Sixth Sense” and “The Uninvited” are movie examples, and “Enemies” is a TV example. But only in the instant when Angel says “Second best,” referring to Faith being the second-best actor to he himself, who was pretending to be Angelus. It’s certainly a “wow” moment, but even the first time I saw this episode, something didn’t ring true, and on subsequent viewings I still can’t figure out how Giles knew to summon a demon who would then be summoned by the Mayor — the gang was keeping an eye on Faith, sure, but there’s no way they could know the specifics of the Mayor’s plan, right? So “Enemies” ultimately feels like an excuse for Boreanaz to play Angelus again (although technically, he’s playing Angel playing Angelus here).
It’s not totally a filler episode: Buffy makes a big point about knowing the Mayor’s Ascension is coming on graduation day, but I think the most important thing is that the Scoobies now know Faith is flat-out bad. Interestingly, “Enemies” features the first instance of Faith deliberately killing in cold blood when she offs a demon to acquire the Books of Ascension. In my mind, I had thought of her killing the innocent professor in “Graduation Day, Part 1” as being the first murder, but this one should qualify because the demon was entrepreneurial, not evil. Heck, he was basically just a bookseller. Later, especially on “Angel,” it’s made clear that “demon” doesn’t equate to “evil,” but at this point in the mythology, it’s still a little vague.
22. “Beauty and the Beasts” (4, Noxon) — Granted, there’s some good stuff in this episode: Buffy quietly cries as Angel realizes it’s her, falls to the ground and hugs her; Willow tugs werewolf Oz’s tail so Faith can get a clear shot at him; I even kinda like the Buffy voiceover about wild beasts that bookends the episode, just because it’s so atypical of “Buffy.” But the A-plot is straight from a Lifetime movie. Pete is taking drugs that turn him into a rage monster, but the subtext isn’t hard to figure out here: He’s a crappy guy who beats his girlfriend. The cliched scene where he beats Debbie to death is capped off in even worse fashion when he strikes Buffy a few times and yells “You’re all the same!”
How would you rank the episodes? Share your thoughts below.