The Best and Worst of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 3

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For previous installments:

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Season 3 saw the introduction of the slayer, Faith, along with the return of Angel from hell, and the Mayor Richard Wilkins III as the Big Bad.

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The Best:

Revelations, and Enemies

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Although Revelations and Enemies are not a two-part story, they both equally are two of the best episodes that I think Season 3 had to offer, particually in dealing with the story between Buffy and Faith. According to the A.V. Club review of Revelations:

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Out of all the people in Buffy’s immediate slayer-circle, who’d have guessed that Faith would be the one with the least to hide? But you can’t have an episode called “revelations” unless there’s something to reveal, and thus far Faith’s been an open book. Now Buffy, on the other hand….

The news breaks in “Revelations” that Angel is alive again, and that he and Buffy has been practicing a very sensual version of yoga together. This does not go over well with the slayer-deputies, who stage what looks like an intervention, but is actually an excuse for everyone to yell at Buffy. (Willow, disappointed that the gang isn’t following proper intervention form, complains to Giles: “No one’s doing the I-statements!”) Giles reminds Buffy that Angel once tortured him “for hours, for pleasure.” Xander brings up the death of Miss Calendar, which may be the ultimate “How do you forgive this?” incident. And when Buffy insists that the relationship between her and Angel has changed, Oz notes that when Xander found them together, they were kissing. (“Old habit,” Buffy says to Angel at their yoga session. “You think they make a patch for this?”)

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But when Oz mentions the secret kissing, Willow flinches a little, because she has a secret of her own: she and Xander are still in The Surreptitious Make-Out Club. Willow tries to confess her sins to Buffy later, but a demon attack interrupts their conversation, and after the moment passes all Willow’s willing to admit is, “I opened my SAT booklet five minutes early.” Xander, meanwhile, chooses to channel his anxiety over the Willow affair first into demon-hunting, and then to getting really, really defensive.

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We’ll deal with the defensiveness in a moment, but first the demon, whose name is Lagos, and who has come to Sunnydale in search of the power-bestowing Glove Of Myneghon. Lagos is trailed closely by Gwendolyn Post, who arrives claiming to be Faith’s new Watcher. Ms. Post expresses exasperation with Giles’ resources, grumbling, “Where’s the rest of your books? Your actual library?” (When she asks about one Lagos-related book in particular, he mumbles, “It’s on order.”) Buffy is suspicious of Ms. Post from the start—“Interesting lady. Can I kill her?” she chirps—and with good reason. Turns out that Ms. Post is an ex-Watcher, looking to grab The Glove Of Myneghon for herself. (“I swear there was a memo…” Giles says, post-Post.)

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Before the revelation of Ms. Post’s deception, she manages to get into Faith’s head a little, challenging her warrior instinct and her “Spartan” living quarters. Between Ms. Post’s criticism—and Xander deflecting his guilt over his Willow-smooching by spilling his guts to Faith about Angel—our cocky co-slayer gets more than a little stirred-up, and decides to take action. When she finds Giles knocked-out (by Ms. Post), she’s convinced that Angel is the culprit, and with Xander in tow she heads off to slay.

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This was my revelation from “Revelations:” Faith is not a very good slayer. (Or as Ms. Post put it, “Word of advice: You’re an idiot.”)

I found the climactic battle between Angel, Ms. Post, Buffy and Faith a little predictable—mostly because it involved Dushku and Gellar’s stunt doubles perfunctorily kicking at each other—but I though the big scene of Ms. Post glove-ing up and Buffy defeating her by severing her arm was pretty wicked. And I liked that Angel got to play the hero and start the slow process of changing minds. (“He saved me from a horrible flame-y death,” Willow says. “That sort of makes me like him again.”)

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Mainly though, “Revelations” set up the episodes that follow, with an important reminder that while secrets may be necessary evils in everyday life, in the slaying business, dishonesty kills.

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According to the A.V. Club review of Enemies:

One character I neglected—intentionally—to mention in “Dopplegangland” is Faith, who’s been allowed back into the Slayer family provisionally, provided that she adheres to Wesley’s training regimen and psych-profiling.  (“It’s just like fun, only boring,” Faith complains.) But while she’s making nice with Buffy, she’s secretly spying for The Mayor, who’s set her up in a sweet apartment with its own gym and Playstation. She’s become like Terra from the ‘80s Teen Titans comics—she’s so full of rage and arrogance that she’d rather soar on the dark side than make her way up slowly with the white-hats. As Buffy notes, Faith will “never be on the cover of Sanity Fair.”

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But the irony of Faith’s choice is that she’s cast her lot in with a man who—though evil as all get-out—is as much of a square as Wesley or Giles. He’s a family man (though we’ve yet to meet his family) who won’t mess around with Faith, and instead asks her to drink her milk, wear her hair back, and not to worry so much about being part of “the in-crowd.” When she’s feeling blue, he offers to cheer her up with miniature golf. He’s just like Ward Cleaver, if Ward had built an entire town “for demons to feed on.”

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In “Enemies,” Faith’s alliance with The Mayor gets revealed in dramatic fashion, though not before a lot of conversations about values, held between a disparate lot of characters. When Giles learns that a horned demon has offered to sell Buffy and Faith The Books Of Ascension for cash instead of the still-beating heart of a virgin, he’s disappointed in what the world has come to. (“No one has any standards anymore.”) When Cordelia asks Wesley what he’s doing on Friday night, he hems and haws, saying, “As always… my sacred duty as a watcher… prevents me… Why?” And when Willow suggests to Buffy that Faith might try to steal Angel away because he meets her standards for a guy—“Is he breathing?” she quips, to which Buffy replies, “Actually, no”—Buffy ignores Willow’s Faith-hate and focuses on the possibility that Angel might respond to someone else’s advances.

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Of course Faith’s real plan is to get Angel to lose his soul again—via sex or via demonic intervention—so that he’ll kill Buffy and clear the way for The Mayor’s ascension. It’s a dangerous game they’re playing, given how uncontrollable Angelus can be. But everything seems to be breaking their way. A powerful spell seems to turn Angel bad, and then he gets Faith to introduce him to The Mayor so he can get the lowdown on all their plans. Then he and Buffy reveal that this was all a trap. (Faith should’ve heeded Ms. Post’s “advice” back in “Revelations”… “You’re an idiot.”)

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The sting-reveal in “Enemies” was very cool, and I’m always happy to see David Boreanaz playing something other than “brooding.” (He’s much more fun when he gets to smile and crack jokes.) But I’d be lying if I said I had a moment’s worry that Angel had gone rogue again. Once again, any plot developments with Angel are hurt a little by my knowledge that he’s going to have his own show soon. Even if Angel had turned, I figured I was in for some kind of quick talking-down scene, which would’ve lessened the impact of the original soul-loss in Season Two. I was glad “Enemies” didn’t go that route. Still, I wasn’t as worried as I might’ve been if I’d seen this episode back in 1999.

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In the end, sting or not, Buffy remains unnerved by Angel’s play-acting with Faith, and decides that they should “take a break” from their relationship. If there’s one thing I learned from ‘90s TV, it’s that you never want to be on a break from the person you love. But this has been a long time coming. Back in “Helpless,” Angel responded to Buffy’s snarky question about whether he was “satisfied” with a bitter, “I’m not sure that’s the word.” In “Enemies” he claims to Buffy that he can be close to her and kiss her and hold her and not worry about losing his soul again, in part because he knows where the line is, and in part because even though being with her is torture, “It feels nice, just to feel.”

Meanwhile, I’m sitting on my couch, thinking, “Careful… careful.”

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The Worst:

The Zeppo

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I have never cared about being cool. So this episode really didn’t tug anywhere important for me to make any considerations. According to the A.V Club review:

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What does it mean to be “cool?” That’s the question that runs throughout “The Zeppo” a fan-favorite (and now me-favorite) Buffy episode that in and of itself kind of defines what “cool” is. The episode is packed with snappy dialogue and references that the viewer has to be semi-hip to get—and that includes the title, which is only half-explained—and it defies conventionality in ways that wink at the audience, knowingly. Heroes run away from confrontation. The world is saved off-screen. If being cool is partly about withholding what’s cool, then “The Zeppo” is one of the coolest TV episodes of all time.

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It’s also the kind of showcase for Xander (and by extension Nicholas Brendon) that partially redeems a lot of the erratic behavior the character has shown over the last two seasons. (And I hasten to add here that I don’t really have a problem with an erratic Xander; I like that Joss Whedon’s characters are often as jerky as they are awesome.) When “The Zeppo” begins, the gang is all on the job, fighting evil—including Willow, who helps out with a clouding spell—though Xander’s really more “fray-adjacent” than the rest of the his friends, helping out mainly by “allowing himself to be pummeled about the head.” Even in the aftermath, the next day, Xander finds himself relegated to being the Slayer’s donut-fetcher, and when he’s confronted on campus by brooding bully Jack, Xander shrinks away from a fight, letting Jack threaten to “kick your ass until it’s a brand-new shape.”

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Even worse? The Jack encounter and the donut-fetching are witnessed by Cordelia, who wanders over after each to twist the knife in. (“Of all the humiliations you’ve had… that was the latest.”) Cordelia notes that if the gang is like The Marx Brothers, then Xander is “the Zeppo,” the brother that doesn’t really have anything cool to do.

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So Xander decides to take a crash course in cool. First he asks Oz for advice, since Oz has mastered the art of short, non-committal phrases, and because he’s in a band. (“Is it hard to play guitar?” Xander asks. “Not the way I play it,” Oz replies.) But after Xander recalls that in eighth grade he played the flugelhorn and got “zero trim,” he ditches the music idea and becomes “Car Guy… guy with a car.” He borrows a ’57 Chevy from his DUI-prone Uncle Roary and in no time flat meets the beautiful Lysette, who’s impressed by Xander’s description of the Chevy as handling “like a dream about warm, sticky things.”

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Not only that, but while shepherding Lysette around in the Chevy, Xander has another encounter with Jack, and so impresses the bully with his heightened cool that Jack invites him to be his “wheel man” as he picks up some buddies for a night on the town. The problem? His buddies are a-moulderin’ in the grave. And Jack’s not technically “alive” himself. Thus Lysette takes her leave, and Xander winds up spending the night as a chauffeur for zombies.

I’m sure everybody has had the feeling—either in adolescence or adulthood—of being in stuck far from where you’d like to be, while your friends are doing fun things without you. Maybe you’re grounded, or on a family vacation, or maybe your friends couldn’t reach you in time, but there’s nothing worse than feeling like an accidental outcast (unless it’s feeling like an actual outcast). In “The Zeppo,” Xander is stuck hanging out with these awful, awful people, and he can never seem to break away to get where he wants to be. Lysette bails on him. He busts in on Buffy when she’s busy strategizing with Angel. Oz is locked up because of the full moon. Giles and Willow are otherwise occupied. Xander’s like the Sisyphus of excluded friends.

At one point Xander’s willing to settle for a semi-Slayer experience by helping out Faith, but that takes a wrong turn very quickly. Faith, aroused by combat as usual, jumps on Xander, saying, “Relax… take your pants off.” (Xander: “Those two concepts are antithetical.”) Xander admits to faith that while he’s up for this, “It’s just that, um, I’ve never been ‘up with people’ before.” But he goes with the flow, only to be shoved out the door by Faith when it’s over with a curt, “That was great. Gotta shower.”

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What I loved about “The Zeppo” is how Xander’s feelings of abandonment pervade the structure of the episode, which is filled with moments that are (intentionally) dramatically unsatisfying. A zombie gets accidentally beheaded mid-sentence. Xander’s heroic quippery while threatening beasties with an axe never gets to reach its punchline. The big fight against the creatures emerging from a re-opened Hellmouth happens only in flashes, on the fringes of Xander’s story. “The Zeppo” is blissfully unconcerned with doing what’s expected. Like Xander at the end of the episode—staring down a ticking bomb because he likes the quiet, or walking away from a snide Cordelia rather than answering her slams—“The Zeppo” understands the secret of cool. Just don’t let anything get to you.

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Next is the best and worst of Season 2.

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10 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 3

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