In Sunnydale, Willow, Xander, Cordelia and Oz try to keep the vampire population, while Giles searches for leads on Buffy’s location. On her own in LA, Buffy is going by her middle name, Anne, and working as a waitress. She’s trying to escape her life – and the pain and death that go with it – but that pesky destiny thing follows her. When a friend of a friend goes missing, Buffy literally goes to hell in order to rescue the victims of an underworld slavery ring. She emerges victorious and returns home, where Joyce welcomes her back with open arms.
The gang seems thrilled to have Buffy back again, but things are strained after the summer apart. Timing in Sunnydale being what it is, Buffy, the other Scoobies, and Joyce all start to air their grievances with each other in the middle of her awkward “welcome home” party, but zombies, attracted by a mask from Joyce’s gallery, crash the party big-time.
Still awkward around the gang, Buffy has a hard time dealing with their open acceptance of the new Slayer in town. Faith is bold and sassy and not afraid to tell stories that involve her and public nudity. But she’s also got some serious issues, which Buffy sees while the two patrol together. After they face down the vampire who killed Faith’s Watcher, Buffy decides to deal with some issues of her own. She tells the group what happened in Becoming, how she had to kill Angel even though his soul was restored, then she goes to the mansion to say goodbye to him, leaving the Claddagh ring he gave her on the floor. Turning to go, she doesn’t see the pyrotechnic display that announces a shivering and naked Angel’s return.
Willow fears that werewolf Oz might be behind a series of maulings and murders, but the culprit turns out to be Pete, a friend of Buffy’s new boyfriend, Scott. Pete has been taking a home-brewed concoction that turns him into a literal beast. Seeing that the victims are all connected to Pete’s girlfriend Debbie, Buffy tries to get the girl to talk, but even though Pete beats her, she won’t help Buffy stop him. When Buffy and Pete finally fight, Pete has the upper hand before Buffy is rescued by a still-feral Angel.
In a desperate effort to put something ‘normal’ on her resume, Buffy enters the race for Homecoming Queen, but she won’t have a date for it because Scott breaks up with her. The vicious competition between Buffy and Cordelia escalates until the gang decides to step in and arrange for the two to share the limo alone to work out their issues. Unfortunately, the dance is also the night of Mr. Trick’s Slayerfest, and the girls spend most of the evening being hunted for sport, arriving at the dance just in time to see their competition win the crown. Oh, and also? Willow and Xander share illicit smoochies.
Mayor Wilkins needs to pay tribute to a demon, and Mr. Trick brings in Ethan Rayne to help. To create a city-wide diversion, they have the students of Sunnydale High sell cursed chocolate bars. Soon the entire adult population has regressed to their uninhibited, teenaged selves, allowing the mayor’s henchvamps to abduct the babies Wilkins needs for his tribute. With Ripper’s help, Buffy arrives in time to save the babies (and dispatch the demon), but a greater challenge awaits: the SATs.
The gang finds out that Buffy has been hiding Angel, and boy are they pissed (Giles moreso than any of them, considering his torture at Angelus’ hands). A woman claiming to be Faith’s new Watcher preys on Faith’s insecurities and the group’s distrust of Angel to send Faith after him to steal a powerful relic that he’s protecting. Faith and Buffy come to blows. Seeing Angel’s efforts on their behalf (added to the fact that he saves Willow from the rogue Watcher), the gang reluctantly agrees to accept him, but the chip on Faith’s shoulder is bigger than ever.
Willow decides to use magick to put an end to things between her and Xander, but a lovesick Spike interrupts, demanding that Willow do a spell to make Dru love him again. Buffy and Angel reluctantly accompany him to get spell ingredients on his assurance that when the spell is done, he’ll tell them where they can find Willow and Xander. After a bracing spot of violence, Spike decides to forget about the spell, and Cordelia and Oz find their significant others kissing in the warehouse where they’ve been held. Cordelia turns to run away but falls through the stairs and is impaled by a section of rebar. She survives but only just barely.
Scorned and wounded, Cordelia blames all her problems on Buffy and wishes the Slayer had never come to Sunnydale. Anyanka makes Cordy’s wish reality, and Queen C is soon killed in a Sunnydale that’s overrun with vampires (chief among them being VampXander, VampWillow, and the Master). It falls to a Slayerless Giles to interpret Cordelia’s comments and summon Buffy to Sunnydale. Buffy faces the Master, who snaps her neck just as Giles destroys Anyanka’s pendant. Reality is restored, and Cordy gleefully goes on to wish for Willow to wake up covered in monkey hair.
Angel is being tormented by the ghosts of his victims, who taunt him, telling him to embrace who/what he is and kill Buffy. But it isn’t his victims talking, it’s the First Evil, trying to trick him into taking out the Slayer. Or failing that, to take himself out. Buffy finds him on a hilltop waiting for sunrise and tries to convince him to go on fighting. Angel is saved by an unseasonable snowstorm that suddenly arrives to blot out the sunlight.
Joyce finds the bodies of two children who appear to have ritually murdered. Haunted by their spirits, she starts Mothers Opposed to the Occult, an organization determined to stamp out the unnatural elements that pollute Sunnydale. MOO’s growing influence turns the town into a police state, eventually turning its wrath on witches and Slayers. MOO abducts Buffy, Willow, and Amy to burn them at the stake, but a spell reveals the “spirits” for the demon they really are.
At the Council’s orders, Giles reluctantly subjects Buffy to the Cruciamentum on her 18th birthday. It’s a test which strips her of her Slayer powers and pits her against a vampire with only her wits and resourcefulness to rely on. When the test spirals out of control, Giles ignores his orders and helps Buffy, for which the Council fires him.