Interesting way the story went that year…especially since I didn’t see it going that way, and also since I first had the reaction I can’t see where it’s going yet.
See, the opening several episodes had to do even more dramatic “heavy lifting” than was normal for the show: Buffy straightening out her life after running away from home; Angel’s return from the demon dimension and his recovery from that hellish trip; introducing Eliza Dushku as Faith the other Vampire Slayer; and introducing the season’s villain The Mayor. It was a lot to set up.
The result to me, at first, was more “plotty” than I’d expected; something about those early episodes felt a little “going through the motions” for me, as the writers and producers moved their dramatic elements into place while still getting the fights and other action into each episode. This set-up wasn’t handled badly, certainly (as kradical finally convinced me, the episode of Star Trek: TNG that wrote Wesley Crusher out of the show made all sorts of poor or just plain dumb dramatic decisions, and was a stumbling mess as a result; these episodes weren’t that kind of mess), but after the emotional pull Season Two had had on me, the show seemed a little off.
The big exception early on was Angel trying to recover his humanity…again. When he reappears in our dimension, he’s almost feral after all of the horror he experienced over there; Buffy guides him back to humanity, slowly, knowing how tenuous his hold on his soul is and being careful not to jeopardize his recovery. And as she learned later, their love for each other could still jeopardize that. Tough spot.
(To explain quickly to non-Buffy watchers, back in Season Two Angel flat-out lost his soul after sleeping with Buffy, and became evil. In that season’s finale, Buffy by the skin of her teeth helped him recover his soul (with Willow’s help; credit where credit is due), but too late to avoid his being pulled into the demon dimension. Over the course of Season Three, Angel’s last as a regular on the show, Buffy and Angel recovered their love for each other, but came to see that taking that as far as sex again might start the soul-loss again.
(Oy that poor guy had trouble catching breaks on Buffy, didn’t he?
(I’ll soon watch Angel as well (Season One’s already on hold), and my hunch is that I’ll like Angel a lot too – and not just because of Amy Acker! – so I’m looking forward to where that character goes post-Buffy. I now have more reason to look forward to that.)
I think where that emotional connection began, well, connecting to me again was the Buffy episode “The Wish,” where Cordelia selfishly wishes that Buffy had not come to Sunnydale and Anya, still a vengeance demon disguised as a young woman (though soon to become a young woman, no longer a demon) makes it so. We see a Sunnydale that could be a vampire-y suburb of the nightmarish Hill Valley from Back to the Future Part II; it’s a Sunnydale where people are fighting the forces of darkness…and losing. And they’re still losing even after they get Buffy – known by reputation for her vampire slaying elsewhere – to join their fight. And that episode shows the true stakes (pun seriously not intended) of the fight Buffy’s been fighting all throughout high school, and the course of the show. This is how bad it could get, the episode says. And it was smart to call back to that later in the episode “Doppelgangland”; the show could make a joke out of referencing that alternate-reality Sunnydale (when vampire-Willow’s yanked out of our dimension back to the alternate Sunnydale, and immediately killed), but that much more harrowing version of their town – that worse version of existence – is still out there, like The Truth. And we’re reminded:
Things can get bad. Things can get worse. Things can get good. Things can get better. To me, that basic philosophical statement seemed a little lost at the start of Buffy Season Three…but the writers and producers never forgot that, and emphasized that later in the season. It’s behind what Faith decides, and it’s partly why Buffy’s mom Joyce briefly becomes an activist for a dangerous cause (in “Gingerbread”: “This is not a good town”)…but it’s behind Buffy helping to prevent the shooting (“Earshot”), or the school’s seniors finally seeing that this strange Buffy girl has saved them many times over, which led to that wonderful finale in “Graduation Day Part II.” (“NOW!” Buffy yells, and the entire senior class prepares to fight…)
So the show continued to be about more than cool fights and quips. Cool.