Are these glowing five star reviews getting tiring? I hope not, because I'm afraid I can't say enough good things about the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In a series that by this time had elevated itself to super-cult status, demand was naturally high to keep the quality consistent. Joss Whedon and his established team of writers, the big stars being Doug Petrie, Marti Noxon, Jane Espenson, David Greenwalt and David Fury – together, they delivered a stupendous third season. As well as going from strength to strength, it was clear that Season 3 had matured a great deal – our heroes are worrying about college, relationships are becoming more complicated and a great deal changes a the series starts to make the transition out of school life. Again, Buffy succeeds by ramping it up on ever level.
Yet again, this season begins where the previous season left off. 'Anne' is the starter here, following Buffy's adventures in LA now that she has run away from Sunnydale after killing her lover. Back in Sunnydale, the team try to cope with the vampires in Sunnydale – but it is definitely clear that they are struggling without Buffy. Buffy finds herself sucked into a hell dimension thanks to a kindly/murderous church helper, and realises that she cannot cheat her fate. She chooses to return to Sunnydale. Proof that Buffy can go to any territory, 'Dead Man's Party' flirts with zombies, at the same time dealing with the anxiety being felt about Buffy running away from home. Both episodes settle us very comfortably into the world of the Buffster once more. A new bad guy and a very bad girl are introduced in 'Faith, Hope and Trick', in which we meet Mr. Trick ("it's not a haven for the brothers, you know, strictly the Caucasian Persuasion here in the Dale"), a cunning and extremely stylish vampire who is pursuing the drop dead gorgeous Faith, another slayer called when Kendra (badly accented slayer in Season 2) died. Faith is everything Buffy is not, and Buffy clearly resents the way she is working her way into Buffy's life – the chemistry between them is excellent however, and Eliza Dushku fills Faith with pure sexual ferocity that means she will often dominate the scenes she shares with Buffy.
'Beauty and the Beasts' sees the big twist of the season – Angel returns from hell, in a feral state. Buffy's encounter with him is enough to convince her to keep his presence secret, especially in light of the various animal attacks occurring around school. Oz naturally becomes prime suspect, but is left off the hook. We also see Oz finally getting some razor sharp dialogue ("Yeah, but, you know, since the best jazz is improvisational, we'd be going off in all directions, banging into floats… Scary").
From 'Homecoming' up until 'Lovers Walk' we see a brief affair between Willow and Xander, whose 'fluke' kiss in 'Homecoming' becomes a source of consternation for them both. Further smooches ensue until they are caught red handed by both Oz and Cordelia when being held prisoner by Spike (more on him later). The results of this are the painful split of Cordelia and Xander, who share acid and hurtful (if brilliant and often very funny) dialogue for most of the rest of the season. Oz and Willow split temporarily, but kiss-and-make-up after Oz proves more even minded than Cordy. 'Band Candy' is a stand out episode, if because we finally see Joyce Summers (Buffy's mother, played by Kristine Sutherland) becoming a more central character. All the adults in sunnydale are becoming teenagers – and believe me when I say, this episode is worth watching for what happens to Giles and Joyce alone.
'Lovers Walk' sees the welcome return of Spike, who arrives in very much the same manner except this time dead drunk ("Home, sweet… home") and also broken hearted after Dru told him 'they could still be friends'. As well as seeing some vintage Spike action, we see some extraordinary profundity from the punk vamp. The reality of Angel and Buffy's relationship is brought home for the first time by his words in one of the best speeches of the season:
"You're NOT friends. You'll never be friends.
You'll be in love till it kills you both. You'll fight, and you'll shag,
and you'll hate each other till it makes you quiver, but you'll never be
friends. (points at his temple) Love isn't brains, children, it's
blood… (clasps his chest) blood screaming inside you to work its will. I might be love's bitch. But at least I'm man enough to admit it."
Hmm, very telling. It is with episode 9 that the third season soars into brilliance with the monumentally cool 'The Wish'. Cordelia, still reeling from her break up with Xander, makes a rather ill-advised wish to the demon Anyanka (Anya of course, who becomes quite prominent in the next season). We see the alternate Sunnydale if Buffy had never been there – scared, subdued by The Master and inhabited by Vampire Xander and Vampire Willow, who burn up the screen with every scene they are in ("I love this part" "You love all the parts"). Naturally this means the master makes a welcome return, and we see a far meaner, more dangerous Buffy who is clearly embittered and cold after her calling takes up her entire life. After a heartbreaking sequence in which each and every one of our heroes dies, all is returned to normal thanks to Giles' actions which result in Anyanka becoming plain Anya. 'Amends' is one of the less well received of Joss Whedon's episodes, but actually handles Angel's despair about his previous sins very tenderly and introduces us to the big bad of Season 7 – the first evil.
'Gingerbread' is a rather stylish retelling of The Crucible, after Joyce comes across two children dead in a park apparently at the hands of witches. At first things seem okay, before student rights are being violated, goths are being picked on for no readily apparent reason and Gile's entire library is confiscated. The witch-burning finale definitely evokes Arthur Miller, as Buffy herself is about to be killed by her own mother – although of course this time the ending is a happy one. Xander-focused episodes are always fun, and 'The Zeppo' is probably his best. An episode that gives Xander his very own adventure after his friends decide he's going to get killed if he helps them avert the apocalypse, works as the best derivative of 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead' ever created – we see the drama of Buffy's adventure in averting the apocalypse, but the focus is Xander's own problems with an undead gang he inadvertently becomes part of (Giles: "There's something… different about this… menace,
something in the air… The stench of death" Xander: "Yeah, I think it's Bob"). He also saves everyone even as they fight on the hellmouth, though they don't know it of course, and finally realises he doesn't need to worry about whether people consider him useless or not – he knows he saved the day once.
'Bad Girls' and 'Consequences' deals with the downfall of Faith, who by the end of 'Consequences' has shifted sides completely and starts working for the mayor – the fact her Skywalker-esque turn to the dark side never fails to be real is a testament to how Eliza Dushku and Sarah Michelle Gellar play off against each other. it is one of the great tragedies of the season that is touched upon again in Season 4 and even in Season 1 of Angel.
It is probably worth mentioning arguably the greatest and most entertaining bad guy in television – The Mayor (Harry Groener), who wishes to ascend to demonhood and forms the backbone of the season in its superb story arc. The mayor…what can I say about him? There aren't words that can describe how knock-out funny and bizarre this guy is. Obsessively clean, polite and sunny but hiding an evil and vicious soul, the mayor simply blows away everyone in all of his scenes – this does include when he's with Faith, Buffy or anyone else ("This officially commences the Hundred Days. Nothing can harm me until the Ascension. (smiles wide and laughs) Gosh, I'm feeling chipper! (keeps laughing) Who's for a root beer?!"). I feel that I have to mention the scene in 'Bad Girls' in which he ticks his 'to do' list, which includes 'greet scouts, see temp agency, become invincible'. Sorry, but it had to be done. The guy is pure class. His father-daughter connection to Faith becomes a strong sticking point up until the climactic episodes of 'Graduation Day Parts 1 & 2' and, in tribute to Harry Groener's acting, show the mayor conveying a great sense of loss when Faith is…incapacitated. Sheer brilliance.
Willow is also a very strong character in this season; she starts becoming the leader the gang need when Buffy isn't there to do it for them, and we see her in the wonderful 'Doppergangerland' at her best. An attempt to throw off her nerdy exterior by performing a spell with Anya goes somewhat askew, and the vampire Willow from 'The Wish' ("Bored now") turns up in the home reality. The quotes are just endless, so I'll simply put my two favourites in here:
Giles: She was truly the finest of all of us.
Xander: Way better than me.
Giles: (nods decisively) Much, much better.
Buffy: "Aren't you gonna introduce me to your- holy
God, you're Willow."
Also, Willow's "Jeez, who died?" response to her despairing comrades after seeing her as a vampire…pure Joss Whedon and pure beauty. After the fun of 'Dopplegangerland' we return to more serious turf, and in 'Enemies' and 'Choices' we see the further downfall of Faith, and also the build up to the mayor's ascension. Faith becomes more murderous and destructive, and the mayor makes a rather pointed comment about how Buffy and Angel's relationship can never work. 'Earshot' is also a great episode (sandwiched inbetween 'enemies' and 'Choices'), and frighteningly contemporary, as it deals with a mass-murderer in high school that Buffy overhears after becoming a mind-reader temporarily. Interestingly, this episode was to be broadcast one week after the Columbine massacre and was rather wisely shunted forwards as a result. Of course for me, the episode is worth watching for Buffy's reaction to what Joyce and Giles did in 'Band Candy'.
'The Prom' sees Angel break up with Buffy, breaking her heart of course but harks back to The Mayors profound statement about the fact the two can never have a happy life together – he tells her he will leave after graduation day, but not before he shares the prom with her in the last dance they will ever have. There is also a glimpse of the future between Xander an Anya, in the first of many priceless exchanges (Anya: "Fine. Look, I know you find me attractive. I've seen you looking at my breasts." Xander: "Nothing personal, but when a guy does that, it just means his eyes are open.")
The explosive season finale, the two-parter 'Graduation Day Part 1 & 2' sees everything come to a thundering end. Buffy and Faith fight, Buffy wins but needs Faith's blood to cure Angel from a poisonous arrow fired by the eponymous rogue slayer. Now, when I graduated, I was half expecting (half hoping?) for the VC to turn into a giant snake while all the robed graduates removed various medieval weapons and twatted him with flamethrowers and fire arrows before destroying the Arts Centre in an enormous explosion. What a headline that would make. Of course, this is what happens in Buffy. After a great speech by Principal Snyder ("You all proved more or less adequate") the mayor ascends, and the gang stand with the rest of the school to defeat the mayor. Its a great end, and a new beginning – there is no more school, and Cordelia and Angel enjoy their last episode.
Oh yes, I forgot to mention Wesley! Played by Alexis Denisof, the character of Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, the new watcher after Giles gets fired in 'Helpless' only stays for this one season but is so memorably priggish and buerkish that he just HAD to become part of the core cast of Angel. Well played friend, well played.
Season 3 proved that TV series don't just peter out after two seasons, and in the case of Buffy continued its very fine tradition of excellent dialogue and compelling characterisation, as well as putting our favourite characters into fruition throughout. After this, its roll on the college years. Buffy was rarely better than this.