oral history

The Trio: The Oral History Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Nerd Villains

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Every new season on Buffy the Vampire Slayer brought the promise of a fresh Big Bad, a major enemy that would crop up to make life Hell, literally and figuratively, for our heroes. Usually, Big Bads were mythical sorts — sadistic vampires, demonic government officials, omnipotent gods. But for the sixth season, which brought the show to UPN in 2001 after a nearly perfect run on the WB, Joss Whedon and his team of writers encountered a different challenge. Since Buffy had died in the season-five finale and was therefore being brought back from the dead — from heaven, no less — the show was beginning from a dark spot and therefore needed a lighter Bad, as it were. So the show’s writers hit on the idea to have three social misfits from Buffy’s high-school days — previously-seen characters Jonathan Levinson and Warren Mears, along with Andrew Wells, the younger brother of a one-time Buffy antagonist — form a tech-savvy triumvirate with plans to take over Sunnydale after years of being ignored and picked on. This nerdy trio initially served as pure comic relief but stakes quickly escalated: Warren, intent on shooting Buffy, accidentally killed Tara, Willow’s girlfriend, and in the process sent Willow into a magic-fueled apocalyptic rage. Before there was a national dialogue about bullying, Buffy the Vampire Slayer took on a very human story about what happens when victims become villains. As part of our weeklong series of micro oral histories, Vulture tracked down key Buffy alumni to talk about how the Trio came to be, how 9/11 factored in, and why the three characters are still so revered today.

Doug Petrie [writer/director/producer]: I remember Joss pitching the two Big Bads of the season. One was going to be Dark Willow, and the other was going to be these three nerds.

Jane Espenson [supervising producer/writer]: We were looking for a puzzle piece that fit where they ended up fitting. And we needed more leavening: Things are dark right now, we want something more comedic.

Petrie: We realized these guys could be a gateway into Willow’s darker self. They were going to mess around and get in way over their heads. Nerd empowerment gone horribly wrong.

Espenson: And there was also the sense that Jonathan and Warren were successful characters, so what can we do to keep them around?

Danny Strong [Jonathan Levinson]: I went to a premiere [over the summer] and Joss was there. He said, “We’re going to be seeing you this season.” I hadn’t been in season five at all, so it had been a while since I had been on the show. And he gave me a big smile like it was going to be something good.

Adam Busch [Warren Mears]: I was at the grocery store and the checkout man said to me, “You were on Buffy.” [I said,] “Yes.” [And he said,] “And you’re coming back!” [I said,] “That’s right!” [He goes,] “And you’re going to be in a trio with Jonathan and someone else.” I didn’t know that. That’s when I realized the reach of the fans and how they consistently knew more than I did.

Espenson: We knew it would be Jonathan, we knew it would be Warren, and we were looking for Tucker from [the third-season episode] “Prom,” but [actor Brad Kane] was unavailable.

Strong: I ran into that actor, and he told me they had offered him a large part with a multi-episode contract. He kind of told me about the Trio, and then I realized I was going to be one of the other two characters.

Espenson: So we started talking about what if Tucker had a brother? I said, “His name should start with an A.” Because if you have Jonathan and Warren, then they can name themselves JAW as an acronym! Joss was like, “Great! Let’s name him Andrew.” We never ended up using JAW, but that’s why his name starts with an A. [Laughs]

Petrie: She’s so full of shit! Nobody supported that idea, I can tell you that right now! That’s hilarious. I did pitch — now I’m going to do my version of it — that we could call them the Threesome or the Threeway. And I literally didn’t think of it that way. And they were like, “Um, that’s going to be a problem.” And then I double-downed on it, and I said, “They should say, ‘It’s an awesome name,’ and not understand why everyone’s laughing at them when they say, “We’re the Threeway!” That got no traction whatsoever. Who knew that that many people would say no to a threesome? But live and learn.

Tom Lenk [Andrew Wells]: In the original script, Tucker/Andrew was written as the leader of the Trio. The way I approached it, I was not the leader type.

Espenson: Tom played the part totally differently than we had intended it, which was more Tucker-ish, really into the adventure. They were firing off their jet packs and flying off, and his line was [in bold tone], “All systems go, blast off!” And Tom did it [sounding a bit frazzled], “All systems go … blast off?” Like he was sorta into it, but scared about what this jet pack was going to do. So we wrote the character with more of Tom’s take — taking away the bravado and making it false bravado.

Strong: I had had such a beautifully written scene [in season three’s “The Prom”] giving Buffy the Class Protector award but it kind of didn’t make sense at the time it aired because “Earshot” had been pulled [in the wake of the Columbine massacre] and [the scene where she prevents him from committing what she thinks will be a school shooting] hadn’t aired yet.

Espenson: In my mind, Jonathan went from, Yeah, Buffy saves you but you’re still powerless, you still love the things you love, you meet other people who love the things you love, who have an agenda. You can embrace all the fun stuff about being a super villain without understanding that there is pain and loss for the good guys at the same time. And Warren is a genuinely bad guy. He is a misogynist.

Petrie: His misogyny definitely grew. And we never played with that stuff. If someone was racist or homophobic or misogynist, any little nook in your karma would come to fuck you in the end on Buffy. We never ignored that stuff, ever. Any moral choice really affected you.

Busch: The very first scene that we shot together as the Trio, we were all sitting around a Dungeons & Dragons board.

Petrie: This was the first episode that I directed, “Flooded,” and that was straight from Joss Whedon, the pitch of their origin, [where Warren goes,] “So, you guys want to team up and take over Sunnydale?” And the other two guys go, “Okay.”

Busch: Right after they yelled, “Action!” we realized that none of us knew how to play D&D.

Petrie: Is that true? They did say, “What do we do?” We said, “Just do nothing! Be bored!” And that worked great.

Lenk: I still don’t understand how to play Dungeons & Dragons! [Laughs]

Busch: One of the writers, Drew Greenberg, said, “Let me show you!” They were very embarrassed for us.

Drew Z. Greenberg [writer]: Our brains were in the same places as the Trio. I’m a lovely rainbow of horrible nerd qualities.

Petrie: We were always giving each other little gifts in the script. These characters, more than any we ever had, were allowed to be mouthpieces for us. I’m pretty sure [writer] Steven DeKnight was into the jet pack. He always wanted a jet pack. He also always wanted a pet monkey, who would sit on his shoulder and be trained to attack executives when they disagreed with his ideas. We never met an idea we didn’t like. We had a lot of crazy shit that didn’t make it on the air — the Buffy cutting room floor was pretty glorious — but the jet pack was DeKnight’s.

Espenson: Doug Petrie’s writing of the Trio and Drew Z. Greenberg’s writing of the Trio were very much informed by their own set of interests. If you’re going to write about an action figure, you’re not going to research one — you’re going to write about the one you have on your desk.

Greenberg: I had written the Boba Fett action figure in the script, and I talked about it being a 1979 mint condition Boba Fett. One of the producers called me and said, “I think we found a problem. Boba Fett wasn’t introduced until The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, so your script is wrong.” And I got to say, “Actually, no, the action figure for Boba Fett was introduced before the movie came out, you guys are wrong!” And that was when everyone knew I was a really big nerd. I was really proud of it.

Busch: The line that comes back to me most from people on the street is, “We are your arch-nemesis-es.”

Greenberg: [The season’s ninth episode] “Smashed” was my first script as a staff writer on any show. It was my first script for my favorite show, and it was also a script in which a couple major events happened, that I, as a fan of the show, had been waiting for, for a couple of years. Joss was the one who pitched, “What if we play up the Buffy-Spike antagonism, and they sleep together and they bring the building down at the end?” It gave the whole episode a shape. I was so excited, I got up and did a happy dance. I left that night with so much hope and so much excitement, and I will always remember the date of that night: September 10, 2001.

Busch: Then 9/11 happened. I turned on the TV, and I assumed we wouldn’t be working. But then I got a call from the A.D., “Yes, we are going to work, come in.” Some actors weren’t working, some were. Some weren’t emotionally available. They asked me if I could, and I said, “Yes, I can do that.” It was a great distraction. I remember we would shoot, and then we would all stare at the monitor the director had tuned to news coverage. The A.D. finally gathered everybody and said, “We’re just going to end the day.”

Amber Benson [Tara Maclay]: For some reason, I always feel that kind of foreshadowed where the show was going. There they are, trying to destroy the world, while we’re making a social commentary on that. It was very odd and meta.

Greenberg: We were all in shock, and the work had to wait for a while, as it should have. As rough as things got, the episode was a real gift to have that to distract me. It took a few days to get back on track, but we had to keep going.

Busch: It kind of became an unspoken thing — if you want to relate it to things like bin Laden, where you’re looking at pure, unadulterated evil in a world where evil and monsters exist. Joss pointed it out — he, who built a world of monsters that are evil for the sake of being evil — that sometimes evil is something we’re all responsible for. Sometimes it’s something that comes out of society, and they are a part of us.  Sometimes it’s just a pissed off underdog with a gun. And that’s still relevant. There’s evil that’s just evil, and then there’s the evil that’s inside all of us, but it’s just how we deal with it that matters.

Espenson: Ultimately for me, it’s about how dangerous it can be to make anyone feel powerless. There’s a very understandable reaction to being oppressed to say, “Well, then, screw you!” If we took more care to make sure no one in our society in their formative years feels bullied, then we’ll have a better chance of them not striking out.

Greenberg: We were exploring the rift between Jonathan and the other two, and humanizing Jonathan just a little bit, as Warren goes darker. Jonathan was starting to see that he was on the outs.

Strong: I liked how Jonathan was getting differentiated in the Trio, and that he was always concerned about Buffy was a good counterpoint for Warren.

Greenberg: That was an important point to start working in, because ultimately in the end, Warren is the one who causes the most damage.

Benson: This was before Adam and I really knew each other, but I made a comment in passing, “You’re going to kill me!” [Laughs]

Busch: I saw Joss, and he told me, “Warren’s going to kill somebody.” And I said, “Yeah, I heard. Warren’s going to kill Tara, right?” [He said,] “No, no, Warren’s going to kill [his ex-girlfriend] Katrina. What are you talking about?” “Nothing, never mind.”

Benson: I found out while we were shooting the finale of season five. Joss took me to his trailer, and he said, “I have something I want to tell you! We’re going to kill your character!” He was so excited. Not because he was killing the character — it was about the arc of Willow’s character and the addiction storyline. He was so excited to take her character to such an interesting place.

Strong: Up until [episode 12,] “Dead Things,” everything with the Trio had been very comedic. It was very Marx Brothers — campy, screwball hijinks. And then all of a sudden, we kill a girl. It’s a tone shift out of nowhere, and it gets dark in an instant. That was the last thing you expected, because of the comedy at first.

Petrie: Almost every episode, within the body of the episode, it starts as a drawing room comedy, and it ends as a James Cameron movie. The first act is usually pretty light, and often the villain of the piece will appear at the end of act one. And that’s what we had as a seasonal structure. We had these guys, and they were funny, and it’s basically a joke, and the joke is going to go horribly fucking wrong, and then we’re going to be in very deep territory.

Greenberg: The idea in [episode 17,] “Entropy” was to set up what looks like a Trio adventure, and then jet off to the side with a little bit of a twist. They were a bit of a red herring, in terms of the emotional arc of the episode. What mattered was the heartbreak, and then the joy of Willow and Tara. I knew it was the last time we were going to see Willow and Tara together and happy. In the action lines in the script, something you never see on screen but is in the script, I made reference to, “This is a true love, forever.”

Benson: It was so ironic that Tara would be on the receiving end of their dastardly stuff, because she had taken on the role of the conscience within the gang, “We have to be respectful of people. People are not bad.”

Busch: Warren says, “You think you can do that to me?” before he shoots Buffy [and hits Tara too]. No perspective.

Petrie: When Tara got shot, fans went ballistic. And so did Willow.

Espenson: Skinless Warren was one of my favorite things. It was so hard to look at!

Busch: Warren’s death scene was really intense. I was hanging there all night, crucified, in between takes, while everyone took breaks. It made me very cold, very miserable, and very tortured, which I thought worked really well for the scene. They did it by having me there, with my head back, and when the head comes forward, it’s a stunt guy. And you can see that he’s just way more ripped than I am!

Benson: It was so sad to see Tara pass away and see how horrible it was for Willow, but from a story perspective, it was really cool, this catalyst for Dark Willow.

Greenberg: A lot of what made the Trio so bad for the whole season leading up to Dark Willow was that they wanted so much, and they understood so little, and it’s that lack of understanding that caused so much wanton destruction by these three seemingly harmless nerds. Joss set out to tell a story in which after five years of vampires and demons and gods and so many mystical entities wrecking destruction on our people, what ultimately ends up hurting the most is caused by simple, everyday humans. These guys, who are just guys, tear the family apart in a way they’ve never been hurt before.

Busch: You get the feeling that if Buffy had knocked on the wall of their van and said, “Hey, do you want to get a soda?,” the Trio would have been, “Yeah, let’s just do that! Let’s just be friends instead.” They probably could have got along. So you can understand why a natural anger towards Xander and Willow could come up like that — “Why them? Why not us?” Any one of [Buffy’s gang] could have turned it around the Trio but that’s just not what [people] do. How often do we do that? But we’re all still friends. Danny, Amber, and I went to see Tom on Broadway in Rock of Ages. And Danny and I went to go see the new Pippin last month, and I’m going to see him for dinner tonight. We are forever tied.

The Oral History of Buffy’s Nerd Trio