This feature contains Buffy the Vampire Slayer spoilers.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer ran for seven wonderful years and many viewers thoroughly enjoyed them all. But no show, no matter how great, can keep hitting the same heights over and over again – every show has its highest switch, and its lowest.
In Buffy’s case, although seasons one, four, five, and even six and seven have their fans, the competition for which season was the high point of the show is pretty much a straight fight between season two and season three.
The arguments in favor ofseason three are not to be dismissed lightly. Fighting in season three’s corner are two of Buffy’s best antagonists; Faith and the Mayor. Both are individually fascinating, Faith representing the dark side of Buffy in the form of the charismatic and energetic Eliza Dushku, the Mayor hilarious, beautifully individualised (an invincible demon who doesn’t like germs) and chilling when he has to be. But together they are a true work of genius, their twisted father/daughter dynamic reflecting Buffy and Giles through a mirror darkly just as the Watcher’s Council do their best to disrupt our heroes’ perfectly strong and well-functioning team by firing Giles and throwing Wesley into the mix.
There are other great things about season three too. Certain individual episodes shine: Band Candy, Lover’s Walk, The Wish, Doppelgangland and Earshot are classics, while Homecoming, The Zeppo and The Prom all have plenty of enthusiastic fans as well. The characters’ romantic relationships, while in a continual state of flux, are focused on some of the series’ most popular pairings, to the extent that a number of Buffy tie-in novels are set in a sort of nether-time in between Revelations and Lover’s Walk in which Buffy/Angel, Willow/Oz and Xander/Cordelia are all going strong at the same time. And our heroes somehow, in between all the demon-fighting, manage to graduate from high school and continue to mature and move forward in their lives.
But season three has its low switch too. While Bad Girls and Consequences are important episodes and the arc plot developments they focus on are darkly brilliant, the episodes themselves are not all that great shakes (especially Bad Girls’ unnecessarily unpleasant demon Balthazar). Although Wesley would rise to greatness on Angel, his appearances in Buffy season three are grating, especially if you’re British, since he covers all the most irritating stereotypes not already embodied by Giles. Gingerbread forces its censorship metaphor and makes Willow’s mother, in her only appearance, disappointingly cartoonish. Beauty and the Beasts says some very strange things about men and women and features, in an episode about domestic violence, Buffy needing to be rescued by Angel, which seems like a bit of a mixed message.
Ultimately, though, it isn’t season three’s low switch that put it behind season two, for while season two’s low switch are arguably lower and more numerous (Reptile Boy, Ted, Bad Eggs, Go Fish) it comes out on top in the end because its high switch are just so high.
Some of season two’s highlights include:
From the moment Spike mows down the Welcome to Sunnydale sign as he drives into town, he and Drusilla make their mark as Buffy’s coolest, funniest, wickedest, most twisted villains, and Spike seals the deal when he ends the episode by killing The Annoying One. The Mayor is great, but Spike and Dru are the Buffy’s most awesome and beloved villains (their double act later enhanced by the addition of Angelus).
Lie to Me
Tragic, heartfelt, dark in the best way. Also includes Willow’s hilarious realisation, ‘That’s what that song’s about?!’
‘What do you want me to say?’
‘Lie to me.’
Surprise, which precedes Innocence and is the first of a two-parter across both episodes, is decent but rather sappy (inevitable, for the episode in which Buffy loses her virginity to Angel). But Innocence is a work of quiet genius. The metaphor is fairly simple – Angel(us) is the monster version of the guy who’s all sweetness and light until you have sex with him, at which point he changes and starts treating his girlfriend like dirt. But it’s exquisitely written and performed, with Willow’s horror at finding out about Xander and Cordelia’s relationship adding to the overall tension.
Also, it ends with a rocket launcher, as all the best episodes should.
Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered
Season two has several comic highlights, like Halloween’s ‘the ghost of what, exactly?’ Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered is perhaps the most fun. Just ignore the terrifying implications of Xander’s spell, and the unpleasant intention that motivated it, and revel in Xander being chased by every woman in Sunnydale, including lunchlady Doris and Buffy’s mom.
Becoming Part 2
Everything in this episode is great, from Willow’s ‘resolve face,’ to Xander’s emotional rollercoaster, to Spike teaming up with Buffy for the first time and meeting Joyce just as she finds out that her daughter is a vampire slayer. The emotion is raw and real and Buffy somehow manages to withstand all the horror the episode throws at her, hardened but not bowed, because if you take all that away, what’s left? ‘Me.’ But it’s those last few minutes that make this climax of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a show. The special effects may be a bit ropey, but the moment Buffy is forced to drive a sword through suddenly-ensouled Angel’s heart and send him to a demon dimension is the defining moment of the show, around which all the other seven seasons revolve. And it is fantastic. I need a hug.
If these were just individual hours of brilliance, season two wouldn’t necessarily be Buffy’s best season. But all these wonderful individual episodes add up to a season that takes us from teen romantic angst, through sweet romance, to that fabulous metaphor that powers Innocence and out into an arc-driven back third which features a trio who are, for my money, Buffy’s best villains. Finally, it culminates in Buffy making the ultimate sacrifice, not of herself, but of someone she loves, and leaving a town that seems to hold nothing for her any more to the strains of Sarah McLachlan. Perfection.
Season three puts up a good fight, but ultimately, as is this case in many, many shows (including all-time greats like Friends and The West Wing), season two is the quintessential season of Buffy.