Charmed: Season Three

"What kind of witch can't vanquish a demon without her sisters?"

This is where Charmed switches gears. The lighter fare of the first two seasons is sidelined in favor of a darker, more mature tone, and the results are quite remarkable. It's the strongest year the series ever had, one that feels like the perfect combination of the wonderful character work of Seasons One and Two, and the more ambitious approach to storytelling that the writers have embraced, here.

Though we've had overarching plots throughout the first two seasons, the standalone antics were always what took center stage. Season Three changes that, with the introduction of one of the most controversial characters in the show's eight-year run: Cole Turner. Initially appearing as an ADA, it's soon revealed that he's a demon that has been sent to take down the Charmed Ones by demonic trio The Triad (who appear to be linked to the series big bad, The Source). Of course, it turns out to be a lot more complicated than a traditional good vs evil hoedown. As a half demon, Cole succumbs to his human side and falls in love with Phoebe, leading to more than a little upset within the Halliwell clan.

There are two distinctive phases to Cole's introduction; his initial attempts at infiltration, and his subsequent reintegration with the sisters later in the season. The first steps transpire over the course of the opening eight episodes, with Cole's presence and the general mystery surrounding his plans elevating otherwise ghastly episodes like 'Magic Hour' and 'Once Upon a Time'. Initially he appears like just another love interest, catching Phoebe's eye at a crime scene. After we learn about his role in The Triad's plan to destroy the girls, the following episodes deftly use his slow infiltration to drum up a strong forward momentum. His falling for Phoebe is well played, too. You can almost see the moment he realises that he's in love with her, and as he tears himself apart over it you start to genuinely care what happens to him. When Prue and Piper figure out who Cole really is, they try to save Phoebe but she decides to let him escape, a decision that lends itself to some great sibling drama when Cole eventually makes his return in the thirteenth episode 'Bride and Gloom'. His humanity also plays a very important role in his journey, with his true motives always feeling a little shrouded; you never really know where his loyalties lie.

Given that the show has played it mostly straight up until now, the decision to tackle something as muddy as this is welcome. It pushes the boundaries of the girls' bond more than it has before, with episodes like 'Power Outage' going so far as to milk their insecurities and differences for all they're worth, and Phoebe's decision to fake Cole's death in 'Sleuthing with the Enemy' creating massive waves amongst the sisters. In particular, Prue has a lot of trouble accepting Phoebe's decision to let a demon live and lie to her family. Sadly, the effects of Prue's distrust of Cole are never fully realized given Shannen Doherty's sudden exit at the end of the season, though those elements continue to spill over into the fourth year in other ways.

Cole's presence is admittedly overwhelming, but there are some beautifully crafted episodes that mostly side-step that plot to focus on the softer elements that have made the series what it is. 'Pre-Witched' is a gorgeous episode that intersperses flashbacks to the past, to a time when magic wasn't a part of the Halliwells’ lives, with the present, where real life is threatening to pull them apart in the same way it did before they became witches. 'Death Takes a Halliwell' falls in 'P3H2O's footsteps, tackling Prue's trauma over her mother's murder, and how she perceives death in light of such a massive loss. Finally, fun episodes like 'Sin Francisco' keep the show from falling into a dark hole of despair as the larger arcs begin to take precedent during the tail end of the season, with that particular hour featuring some of the most genuinely hilarious comedy the show has ever done.

We also see Piper and Leo continue to struggle with being together, as the Elders (Leo's bosses) do their utmost to keep them apart. In the end, their love wins out and they finally marry, though they continue to fight more conventional roadblocks in Season Four. Some of this stuff tends to fall on the melodramatic side, with episodes like 'Magic Hour' succumbing to the pitfalls of overly indulgent romance and contrived plotting. But for every misstep there are many more happier moments to offset the sketchy ones. 'Just Harried' gives Piper the dream wedding day she deserves, despite being partially upstaged by Prue's identity crisis, and the moment Piper accepts Leo's initial proposal in 'The Honeymoon's Over' is actually a really sweet little scene. Their witch/whitelighter issues are the perfect palate cleanser for when the doom and gloom of Phoebe and Cole's witch/demon issues threaten to drain the fun out of a given episode, though Leo himself is still a mostly two-dimensional character, particularly in comparison with multi-faceted Cole.

While the vast majority of this season is dedicated to the ups and downs of the Phoebe/Cole and Piper/Leo sagas, for many this is a season that's dominated by Shannen Doherty's departure. Since her swan song was never planned, it's hard to dissect any of Prue's final moments on the series, though it's fair to say that Shannen's time on the show goes out with a bang. The season finale 'All Hell Breaks Loose', which just so happens to be Doherty's third and final time in the director's chair, is the best episode Charmed ever did. Having toyed with exposure in early episodes like 'Out of Sight', the hour takes its time to build on the sinister side of that idea after the girls are revealed to the world as witches on live TV. After a series of increasingly terrifying events, the episode culminates in a deranged woman fatally shooting Piper. A broken Phoebe is forced into working with The Source who, with Tempus' help, resets time and prevents Phoebe and Leo from saving Prue and Piper from his hitman, Shax. The lofty heights of this episode are never truly reached again, though the after effects are felt for a very long time.

Potions and Notions

The Triad seem to be a re-imagining of The Council we caught a glimpse of last season.

The decision to bring Cole into the series forced creator Connie Burge to leave her position as executive producer before this season. I get that she didn't want to mess with the dynamic of the core three, but the results of this season's shake-up are undeniable.

I don’t know if it's his association with Prue's death, but Shax is honestly one of the scariest demons on the show.

Piper develops a new power; "molecular combustion" i.e. the ability the blow stuff up. It was fun initially, but it causes plotting constrictions in later seasons.

Phoebe also develops a new power; levitation. LOL.

Alyssa also inexplicably goes blonde this season.

Spells and Chants

Prue: "Innocents and alleys... Don't they ever learn?"

Leo: "I've thought this whole thing through."
Piper: "Uh-huh... Is that why you asked me to marry you in a toilet?!"

Piper: "So, why did you do that to your hair?"
Phoebe: "To change my luck."

Piper: "I am a good person. And d*mn it, I would have made a great wife. And how dare you take that from me."

Death: "You lock up your tears and angrily steel yourself against me as if I was the ultimate evil."
Prue: "You are the ultimate evil."

Flashback Phoebe: "We all know that the only thing I add to this threesome is trouble."

Prue: "They killed her Leo. They think we're the demons now."

Best Episode: All Hell Breaks Loose.

Honorable Mentions: Sight Unseen, Coyote Piper, Death Takes a Halliwell, Pre Witched, Sin Francisco.

Worst Episode: Wrestling with Demons; one of the first examples of the series riding the wave of popularity of a given fad.

With well written arcs supporting an impressive narrative drive, Season Three heralds in a more mature era for Charmed, while still honoring the magic of the first two seasons. Shannen will be sorely missed, but at least she got to leave the show on a high note.

9 out of 10 slices of Balthazar flesh.

3 comments:

sunbunny said...

Cole x Phoebe was my first major otp. I ADORED Cole. ADORED him. I remember the Piper/Leo ups and downs less fondly. It started fine but I think they dragged it out too long. It was like ugh let them get married already damn it show.

Panda said...

Honestly, I found the whole Dan thing a hell of a lot worse. The whole marriage thing was well paced I thought, especially on rewatch. It gives them a chance to earn the “fix-it” proposal in the season premiere, too.

TJ said...


Yes, the first three seasons were excellent. And I would say it was because of Shannen Doherty. The show never reached the heights later on.

After some growing pains each season got better and season three is the best of them all. And a lot has to do with the introduction of Cole. A lot of people say that his storyline was stolen from Buffy/Angel. I don't think so. Cole/Phoebe were more of a Spike/Buffy-storyline - which hasn't happened yet in the Buffyverse.

Excellent reviews Panda:)