Last month, I wrote a post about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its iconic season 2 episode “Passion.” BuzzFeed recently compiled a list of every single Buffy episode and ranked them in order of how good they are. While “Passion” doesn’t top the list, it’s given a fairly decent rank.
On another note, a fair amount of season 3 episodes were featured toward the top of the list. Even Buffy herself, actress Sarah Michelle Gellar, took to Twitter to weigh in her opinion on the list.
Granted, “The Prom,” the 20th episode of season 3, is ranked #24 on the list. However, I think Gellar has a point. “The Prom” showcases Buffy trying to stop a pack of hellhounds from attacking the senior prom. Once again, she sacrifices her happiness and good time to protect her classmates. But with the episode being the last before the two-part season finale, it sets it apart from any episode before, or any season closer for that matter.
Buffy’s first three seasons portray the main characters as high school students. It’s no secret that season 3 is the best of this high school era, or perhaps the best season of Buffy altogether. While, mentioned earlier, season 2 takes a step in the right direction by introducing more characters and including more complex storylines as well as allowing the characters to grow, the show isn’t quite in its complete comfort zone yet. In season 3, we finally see a season long story arc that works very well with the standalone episodes. We see much more character development in addition to just better writing in general.
By the end of season 2, a lot has changed. A lot has forced Buffy’s characters to grow up fast. Sometimes we get so worked up watching them fight off vampires and demons that we forget they’re still high school students. But the season 3 episodes portray a lot of staples that come along with one’s time in high school and life as an adolescent. From homecoming to high school relationships to college applications to prom to graduation, season 3 has it all.
Let’s first take a look at how the season is constructed and why it fares much better than previous seasons, and even seasons to come. By the end of the second season, several standalone, or “Monster of the Week” episodes that don’t exactly contribute to the longer season arc, had at least progressed the story along somewhat. Granted, there are still some episodes in season 3 that don’t contribute a whole lot, but they’re written much better than previous efforts. These episodes broke free of traditional plot structures of seasons past and succeeded in getting away from corny ideas and bad execution. Season 1 episodes like “I Robot, You Jane,” which features Willow (Alyson Hannigan) meeting a demonic robot online, and “The Pack,” which features Xander becoming possessed by an evil hyena, fail to do so.
On the other hand, these later standalone episodes do a much greater job of progressing the season and letting the characters grow. “Helpless” puts a strain on the relationship between Buffy and her watcher, Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), after she discovers he has been draining her of her powers in order to test her true slaying ability. “Lovers Walk” showcases betrayal as Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) and Oz (Seth Green) catch their significant others, Xander and Willow, together, and allows us to see a much more open and emotional side to high school queen bee Cordelia and standoffish musician Oz. “Earshot” sees Buffy not only saving the school from a crazed lunch lady, but finding that she’s capable of more than just killing demons after talking a troubled classmate out of committing suicide.
Looking at the season long story arc, this is the first time that the Big Bad or main villain is not a vampire. This time around, the immortal mayor of Sunnydale has concocted a plan to turn himself into a powerful demon and feed on the entire town by the season’s end. As opposed to learning about his plans early on, it takes a while for the gang to even notice him as a threat. The timing of everything in this season is nearly perfect.
In addition to the growth of current characters on the show, we see an introduction of several new characters. Former-demon-turned-mortal Anya (Emma Caulfield) makes her first appearance this season. She would become a prominent character in seasons to come. While Buffy’s new watcher, Wesley, doesn’t offer much to the show, he still contributes as a member of the gang. And last, but definitely not least, another slayer, Faith (Eliza Dushku), is introduced this season. Faith acts as a major foil to Buffy’s character and helped season 3’s story progress.
Not only does Dushku do a great job portraying the rebellious teenage slayer, but her character forces Buffy to make some tough decisions, such as going for help after the two mistakenly kill a man in “Bad Girls,” plotting against Faith after she joins the mayor’s side in “Enemies,” and hunting the fellow slayer down herself after Faith attacks Angel (David Boreanaz) in “Graduation Day.” The idea behind Faith’s character is a what-if situation in which Buffy doesn’t have the support of her friends and family while dealing with her slaying duties.
Buffy is known for using a heavy load of metaphors, and the adolescent related themes in this season are pretty plentiful. As a college freshman, it’s easy for me to very closely identify with this season after recently experiencing a lot of these during my senior year in high school. With still fond memories of senior prom and high school graduation, it’s easy for me to relate.
Finding oneself is a big theme this season and something any teenager can relate to. With the pressures of choosing a path after high school and deciding what you want to do with your life, it plays a pretty big part. We’re introduced to this idea right off the bat in the season premiere, “Anne.” During the very final moments of the previous season, we learn that Buffy has planned to leave town after being expelled from school, fighting with her mother, and losing her vampire lover Angel to a hellish dimension. In “Anne,” Buffy tries to create a new life for herself as a waitress in LA while her friends struggle to fight off evil without her back in Sunnydale. When demons eventually find her, Buffy realizes that she can’t run away from her past life and that fighting evil and protecting people is part of who she is. She later toys with the idea of leaving Sunnydale to attend college after being accepted to Northwestern University in “Choices,” but eventually decides that she can’t.
Meanwhile, her best friends Willow and Xander deal with problems of their own. In “The Zeppo,” we see Xander frustrated by the idea that he isn’t help to the group at all and is seen as sort of a joke amongst his peers. The episode follows Xander on a crazy night of raising the dead, making love to Faith, and stopping a bomb. Needless to say, he finds some sort of self worth by the end. In “Dopelgangland,” Willow is upset after thinking that people only see her as a reliable bookworm, but by “Choices,” she has started to master a bit of witchcraft and proves herself helpful in fighting the mayor.
Relationships play a prominent role in this season too. It starts with a heartbroken Buffy feeling like a fifth wheel among couples Willow and Oz, and Xander and Cordelia. As stated previously, Oz and Cordelia feel the sting of betrayal after catching the other two together. Oz and Willow’s case represents the mending of a broken relationship while Xander and Cordelia’s case represents heartbreak and bitterness, but the two eventually learn to move on, forgive, and accept each other as friends in a mature manner.
Meanwhile, Buffy tries to restrain herself after Angel returns from hell. Knowing that the two can never make love because it will cause Angel to turn evil, she tries hard to remain friends with the vampire. However, this proves too hard for the two as they easily slip back into a relationship. By the last few episodes of the season, Buffy has come to accept the idea of a life with Angel and is wiling to put in the effort to make it work, knowing full well that he is immortal and she is not, and that the two can never make love. It’s Angel that finally realizes that he’s holding Buffy back by being with her. Just like many high school relationships end before the end of senior year and the transition to college, Angel ends their relationship right before prom. Initially upset, Buffy grows frustrated with Angel’s decision, but soon understands that it’s necessary. Even though Angel shows up just in time to slow dance with Buffy at the end of “The Prom,” it’s clear that she understands she’ll soon have to say goodbye.
Which leads us to our next point: saying goodbye. While graduation can be a happy time, it’s a very emotional time for many. For Buffy and her friends, it means saving the world from a demonic mayor at graduation. By this time, it’s clear that Sunnydale High’s students know of the strange occurrences happening around them and are very thankful for Buffy, as they name her “class protector” at the prom. She uses their help in fighting off the mayor and a hoard of vampires to save the day.
The final scenes of the episode showcase clearly what it feels like leaving high school behind. Buffy takes one last look at Angel before he disappears into the night, signifying the end of their relationship. She, Xander, Willow, Cordelia, and Oz, look longingly at the high school to take in the fact that they had not only just survived a near apocalypse, but they survived four years of high school together. Without much hesitation, they turn their backs on the school and walk away, talking excitedly about future plans as the camera pans to a shot of a forgotten yearbook left on the school’s front lawn. Like real life, we are reminded that while it’s important to have fun in high school and make lasting memories, there is a whole new world waiting for us when we leave. The front cover of the yearbook reads “Sunnydale High ’99: The future is ours.”
So yes, Sarah Michelle Gellar definitely had something when she said “The Prom” deserves more recognition. The episode signifies the nearing end of an era. Although, much like prom itself, it’s not the most important thing we’ll experience, it’s a staple of our young adult lives. Much like the framed photo of my girlfriend and I at senior prom that sits on the shelf above the desk in my dorm room, it’s nice to look back and watch Buffy and Angel slow dance one last time before saying goodbye to an important part of their lives.