Its generally considered scandalous when shows lose one of their main actors. Some shows can’t ever truly recover from the loss, a fact that doesn’t go ignored. Plenty of shows would sooner opt to close the curtain rather than attempt to continue. Others are fortunate enough to go on anyway, shifting focus away from former leads and shaking up a the status quo. Grey’s Anatomy killed off Derek Shepherd last season and is pushing forward without him, and The Vampire Diaries said goodbye to lead Elena Gilbert, too. Long before either of them dared to exist without their popular leads, Charmed also got rid of one of its leading ladies. Charmed had a riskier removal than most shows, who don’t base their entire premise around three sisters whose magical powers are intrinsically linked to their sisterhood.
The Power of Three is key to everything, every life saving episode, every evil demon, and it risks being destroyed completely with the death of eldest sister Prue (Shannen Doherty). Even now there’s little information on what led to Doherty’s departure. The most commonly cited cause is on set conflict with Alyssa Milano, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the show. Whatever tension (if any) existed between the two didn’t cross over into the show, in which Phoebe and Prue’s relationship as sisters may be contentious at times (as is typical of sisters) but still loving. Whatever issues were going on behind the scenes, Charmed didn’t have the option of letting them bleed into the show or its scripts. Some shows would try to phase out one of its characters before a permanent removal, but Prue remains as important as ever up until the final moments of the season three finale. The only indication that some change might be coming is Piper suddenly being gifted with an active power, after seasons of having only her freezing to get her by. But with Prue leaving, another sister has to take the lead with a more defensive ability at least until Rose McGowan joins the cast as lost Halliwell sister Paige.
“Charmed Again” kicks off season three in a bit of a disjointed manner. This could be due to the departure of showrunner and creator Constance M. Burge (which is another interesting wrinkle that’s been little talked about it). In the preceding finale, the Charmed Ones went up against demonic assassin Shax, and Piper and Prue were left badly injured in the manor without Leo or Phoebe to intervene and save their lives. Before that there’s some complex matters involving reversing time and the sisters being exposed as witches. But when “Charmed Again” opens its with Piper calling for a lost witch. It implies she’s calling for Phoebe, who we last saw remaining in the underworld to appease the Source and have him turn back time. But Phoebe’s topside and there’s no mention of why that is aside from a paltry mention of Cole “saving her”.
These are hiccups compared to the larger picture, which has a seemingly average Paige discovering her magical connection to the Halliwells. It’s a nice return to the show’s earliest days, where powers and demons were still a mystery. Paige is drawn to the Halliwells (even going to P3) and even shows up at Prue’s funeral. It’s hard to remember how I felt the first time I saw Rose McGowan on the show, but after all this time she’s a more natural link to the show than even Shannen Doherty was. She adopts the show’s quirky earnestness, getting her own weird wardrobe even, and Paige is disturbed and awkward as she gets a crash course in her witchy identity. “Charmed Again” crams in a season’s worth of mystery for Paige: she’s got a love life on the fritz (her romantic hopeful ends up attacked by Shax and then possessed by the Source), a job she’ll probably lose eventually (her boss is not impressed with her quickness to skip out on work), a desire to do more than her mundane social work job will allow her, and of course the matter of her mysterious parentage.
Charmed had the good luck of having already established there being the chance of a fourth Halliwell. Patty and white lighter Sam’s relationship was revealed in season one, so it was more than likely that their union resulted in a baby, Paige left at a police station because Patty and Sam had to hide their relationship from those pesky Elders. With no knowledge of her origins, Paige is vulnerable to the Source’s plot to make her evil and keep the Power of Three from making a comeback. Watching the episode years later, it’s a thrill to witness Paige’s introduction to her sisters. Phoebe has a premonition of Paige being attached by Shax and decides to save her before they watch her orb away from Shax’s attack. It’s all very exciting, from seeing how Paige’s bloodline affects what’s supposed to be telekinesis. Her goodness is never in question, even as the Source tries to make her lean toward evil, but it’s still fun to see her save Phoebe and Piper from the Source, help heal Cole and finally unite with Piper and Phoebe to meet their ghostly mother.
After Paige is confirmed to be the fourth Halliwell sister, “Charmed Again” becomes distinctly lighter. Beforehand, Prue’s death hangs overhead. Holly Marie Combs carries the episode’s heaviest scenes, her grief so extreme that she’s ready to quit being a witch altogether. Though that’s a threat that’s tossed around plenty in the show’s history, it feels more real with Prue’s death lingering in the back of everyone’s minds. Piper’s exhaustion with their thankless tasks makes sense, and her outburst when a demon attacks at Prue’s funeral is particularly affecting. Not to mention her anxiety when Phoebe’s quick to leap into the fray to rescue Paige. Prue’s death does a lot to alter the makeup of the show, particularly when it comes to Phoebe and Piper as witches. With Paige as an inexperienced witch, Phoebe and Piper are thrust into roles of guidance, excitedly embracing Paige when they know who she is (the glowing chandelier gets me every time) and Piper especially slips into the role of wiser oldest sister.
“Charmed Again” has faults, though they’re unrelated to Paige. There’s another annoying cop who suspects things are less than normal at Halliwell and ends up in more than one bad situation because of his nosiness. Then there’s Cole, who’s murky storyline is only starting here. He made more sense when he was evil and reluctantly good, but as he transitions to just weirdly evil in the pursuit of good it becomes less easier to track him as a character. It’s nice not to have doubt following him around like much of season three (that will come back later), but it’s confounding what happened with the finale and Cole being told to warn the Prue and Piper but then..not?
By the time Doherty left it was three years into the show’s eight year run. It was a popular show by all accounts, and Netflix will tell you to this day that it’s the second most popular show in the networks line up. Switching out one of its lead actresses, in a show built on the magical connection between sisters, is a risk that ultimately paid off. The show went on for another five years with Piper, Phoebe and Paige and Prue was left behind. She’s mentioned occasionally, her name dropped in spells requesting the power of ancestors, and season four has plenty of Piper and Phoebe orienting themselves to her absence. But Shannen Doherty will never return to Charmed, not even in the final season when even Cole (Cole!) will show up for an encore. Not even as a spirit. That’s a small gripe for viewers who had been there since the start and would have liked to see Prue come back to see her sisters off, but for latter day viewers of the show, McGowan is their third Halliwell, and Prue is all but completely forgotten.
- This episode features one of my favorite Phoebe looks. That blue halter top is magic.
- Was Cole supposed to warn Piper and Prue or was the Source supposed to send someone and just didn’t in the hopes of destroying the Power of Three? I’m leaning toward that since the latter makes little sense, but someone should have clarified.