At the close of “Graduation Day,” the final episode of the third season of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the character Oz, the laconic werewolf, observes that their band of monster slayers had survived. No, not another epic battle with a demon. They had survived high school.
The 1999 episode — which aired months after it was originally supposed to because some panicked TV executives thought the plot was uncomfortably similar to the just-happened Columbine school massacre — marked a high-water point for the series.
In our household, we’ve made it a habit of re-watching episodes of “Buffy,” which aired for seven seasons and pre-dated the recent “Twilight”-inspired vampire craze. (And topped it in every way except for notoriety. But I digress.) Before the series was available on DVD, we watched old VHS tapes from original airings.
So, in a Halloween frame of mind, we were thinking tonight about what to watch and decided on “Graduation Day.”
If you’ve never seen “Buffy” — maybe you were put off by the deliberately ironic title, or the earlier but vastly inferior movie — you really should. As created by Joss Whedon, the series is about a typical California teenager, worried about school, friends and dating.
Buffy Summers, quite reluctantly, finds herself proclaimed as “the chosen one,” the one-girl-in-a-generation selected to battle vampires and other demons. In a tradition dating back thousands of years, as the show eventually explained, the slayer — endowed with near-superhuman power and a knack for killing vampires — is all that stands between us and the creatures lurking out there in the darkness.
Surrounding herself with a core group of friends — Xander, whose love for Buffy was unrequited, Willow, the nerd-girl pal who grew into one of the most complex characters on TV, Cordelia, the vain rich girl, and Giles, the school librarian who turned out to be a member of the Watchers Council, the group that oversees the slayers.
By the third season, Buffy (played with appealing vulnerability by Sarah Michelle Gellar) had saved the world more than a few times as she balanced the demands of school, her increasingly concerned mom and her relationship with Angel, the vampire with a soul who fought on the side of right. As played by David Boreanaz, Angel went on to star in his own spin-off series.
With graduation in the wings, Buffy’s life was complicated by the appearance of Faith (Eliza Dushku), a slayer with few of the moral complexities and doubts that plagued Buffy. By the end of the season, Faith had changed from ally to enemy and was helping the plans of the town’s mayor (the priceless Harry Groener) in his plan to transform into a huge, snake-like demon.
And eat all the newly-minted graduates.
The episode was funny and poignant and, as the series always did, defied expectations. Faith and the mayor had the kind of complex, caring relationship that the villains of most series would not. Angel took advantage of Buffy — even if it was against his will — alienating her friends.
Maybe “Graduation Day” wasn’t the scariest choice for pre-Halloween viewing. Like most “Buffy” episodes, the show was less about vampires and demons and more about the everyday horrors we all face: alienation, loss and heartache.