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After the superb Season Two, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s exposure had exploded. Not only was there talk of an upcoming spin-off (that was to become Angel the series), the budget was upped and the stakes (thehe) raised. The production team, the cast and the writers knew they had something special on their hands. And now was the time to really show us just how good this cheesy little show of brilliance could be.
Buffy Season Three premiered on September 29th, 1998, returning with a jazzed up theme tune, updated credits, and the largest cast of regulars yet. For many fans, this was one of the show’s strongest years, showcasing yet more fantastic character development, some of the best episodes in the entire run and a superb story-arc. Whilst all of these things are indeed true, is Season Three really the classic, perfected season of TV so lauded by its fan-base?
Well. Let’s dive in and have a look.
Three months after the events of Season Two, the Scooby gang are in a very dark place. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has run off to live in LA, mad with grief over the loss of Angel (David Boreanaz), who gained his soul back but was sent to Hell in the Season Two final. Her friends Xander (Nicolas Brendon), Willow (Alyson Hannigan), her werewolf boyfriend Oz (Seth Green) and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) are out doing her job hunting the Sunnydale Vampires – and having a bit of a hard time whilst doing it. Meanwhile, Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) is doing everything he can to try and find Buffy, whilst dealing with a very hostile Joyce (Kristine Sutherland), who discovered Buffy’s secret last year and is a tiny bit miffed about it.
Although the gang are eventually re-united, things aren’t quite the same. Buffy is a much more reserved young woman than she previously was, Willow is getting more and more involved in magic and Giles has gotten a lot more bad ass since losing Jenny (Robia La Morte). Then, all hell breaks loose as a second Vampire Slayer, Faith (Eliza Dushku) arrives in town, a woman with all the powers of a Slayer but, it seems, none of Buffy’s morals. This, coupled with Angel’s mysterious return from Hell minus his sanity, makes things rather complicated for the gang’s final year at Sunnydale High.
Unfortunately, our usual crew will not have time to stew, as Sunnydale’s founder and Mayor, Richard Wilkins (Harry Groener), unleashes his 100-year plan to turn into a giant snake and wreck hell over the town (it’s a lot cooler than it sounds). An invincible, highly intelligent wizard, this enemy is a completely new threat, made ten-times worse when Faith joins his side. With the Mayor and Faith making their final move, it’s up to the Scooby Gang, and all of Sunnydale High, to somehow stop their plans. Otherwise, Sunnydale, and the world, are doomed.
Season Three is a funny one. There’s a hell of a lot to like about it, not least having something that its predecessors both lack – episode consistency. With the potential acceptance of one or two episodes, most of this year’s instalments are a treat, being well written, beautifully acted and full of some really intriguing ideas and themes. Couple this with the stronger writing in general inherited from Season Two, and you do have something rather special on your hands.
Season Three may have the stronger run of the episodes, but it does lack the intensity of Season Two, something that, to be fair, it was always going to struggle to repeat. Where it does slightly fail, however, is not really giving attention to a couple of major plot themes that Season Two introduced so well, in particular Angel’s death and Buffy running away to deal with it. Both really big events in the show – and both pretty much over with by the end of episode three.
In Season Three’s defence, it really wasn’t going to be able to do much about the Angel situation, given that Angel the series had been announced literally straight after Season Two’s conclusion. David Boreanaz was to remain in the Buffy cast throughout Season Three, and it wasn’t like they could justify giving him a continued wage if his character was, well, dead. Thus, the Season instead introduces a different, more intriguing storyline. Angel returns from 100 years of torture in Hell, and Buffy must nurse him back to health. And deal with the fact that her friends want absolutely nothing to do with him anymore. And deal with her own feelings for him, knowing full well that if she makes him too happy, he’ll revert to Angelus and begin his killing spree once again.
For his part, Angel doesn’t have half as much to do this year. For most of the first half of Season Three, he makes sporadic appearances whilst hiding out in his mansion, and only really comes into his own when the rest of the gang discover his return. From there, his story arc pretty much consists of a will they/won’t they with Buffy, both of whom know they cannot really be together, and both of whom who also know they cannot resist despite themselves. It is Angel that finally ends their relationship, recognising that Buffy is a fiercely intelligent young woman with her whole life ahead of her – a life he can never really be part of. Their final break-up, done by Angel purely to let Buffy be who she needs to be, is particularly heartbreaking -but hey, at least we got an awesome spin-off show out of it.
Angel’s role in Season Three, whilst diminished, isn’t reduced to just him and Buffy. There’s more here with certain other characters – which will be covered later on.
The second Season Two plot, of Buffy running away from her mother, her friends and her responsibilities, fares less well. Although we do get a pretty kick ass episode of Buffy fighting off some hell dudes and saving who would become a very intriguing character on Angel later on, Lily (Julia Lee), her return to Sunnydale, and the eventual forgiveness she receives from her friends, does seem a little rushed. For her part, Buffy went through a hugely traumatic experience, and really needed some time alone to deal with it (remember, the lass is still only seventeen here). For their part, the Scoobies ended up having to deal with forces they really aren’t equipped to fight, risking their lives whilst Buffy was gallivanting off God knows where. The anger they feel towards her is justified, less so how quickly they get over it. Admittedly, it’s very rare that the Scoobies seem as close as the Season One days from here on, but I think this is more down to them growing up, and their own individual development.
Ah well. I suppose we have other important things to be focusing on here. Such as Faith.
The Dark Slayer, granted her power following the death of Kendra (Bianca Lawson), is one of the best characters introduced throughout the entirety of Buffy (and Angel’s) run. Whilst Buffy has her friends, and her mother, to keep her company, Faith had always been a bit of a loner. Indeed, this is a very mixed up person, who’s just been gifted the incredible power of a Slayer. Which also makes her incredibly dangerous.
The relationship between Buffy and Faith forms the backbone of Season Three, and it’s extremely well done. At first, Buffy feels a tiny bit threatened by Faith, who fits in with her friends, seems to be well liked by her mother, and is just as good at Slaying as she is (Buffy’s superiority complex about her power will come into effect quite a few times over the next few seasons). Faith, for her part, is incredibly jealous of Buffy, and it’s something that comes to drive her. As times goes on, Faith begins to be a bit of a bad influence on Buffy, and shows us how Buffy might have turned out had she not had her friends and family to ground her. Slayers are pretty much unstoppable, and can literally do anything they want if they put their minds to it. Season Three explores what happens when Slayers lose control – and is also brave enough to deal with the consequences.
Towards the end of the season, Faith finally crosses the line, killing an innocent man in cold blood and seemingly not caring about it. This births yet another intriguing character relationship, which will be explored heavily later on – Angel and Faith. As Angelus, Angel killed without remorse. His ongoing guilt for that, especially after the events of Season Two, haunt him continuously, and makes him able to understand Faith in ways few others can. Of everyone, Angel is the one who really gets under Faith’s skin – and it looks for a while like he can stop her going too bad – until fate (or a frustrated little English man) jumps in.
Thus, Faith goes full on dark side by the end of the Season – and can only be stopped by Buffy. We’ve had Vampire Kings. We’ve had Angelus the evil ex. Now we get Faith the Dark Slayer, someone just as powerful as Buffy, someone who it would go against everything she believes in to kill. Someone who, as it happens, has partnered herself with a father figure that is equally as dangerous, and just as entertaining.
I’ll come out and say it – I fricking love the Mayor. Yes, he’s not as intimidating as Angelus, but Groener is just so damn hilarious in this role that he simply electrifies every scene he’s in. The Mayor is the perfect example of a condescending politician, talking down to everyone and always believing he knows best. He’s also the expert at one liners, seemingly laughing at everything and being, on the outside, the perfect gentleman. And yet, underneath it all, he’s evil, and beyond dangerous. When he shows his dark side, you damn well know it. And it’s time to be scared.
The Mayor, for most of Season Three, has one goal – achieve Ascension. See, before the time of man, Pure-Blood Demons ruled the Earth, long-since banished by the modern era. The Demons and Vampires Buffy and co deal with are Half-Blood, and thus, according to the fanatics like the Mayor, lesser. Therefore, the Mayor wishes to become a full Pure-Blood Demon, in this case, a big ass snake. This aim, however, changes when he meets Faith, and the two form a father/daughter relationship to parallel the one between Giles and Buffy. The Mayor genuinely cares for Faith, and is seriously upset by anything befalling her. Faith, for her part, sees the Mayor as an older father figure she’s clearly never had, prepared to do literally anything for him. In short, this helps to paint a very clear picture. The Mayor is evil. Faith is not. But she’s still a killer.
The Mayor may not survive Season Three, but this is far from Faith’s last appearance. The coma she ends up in essentially puts things on hold. But she does come back. And it’s glorious.
And what about the rest of the Scoobies? Well – this one is a bit of a mixed bag.
Let’s get it out of the way first, so we can move on and forget it ever happened, just like the writers do. I am, of course, talking about the Xander/Willow kiss. Something that comes completely out of nowhere when both characters should know better (particularly Willow), something that screws up their otherwise lovely relationships with Cordelia and Oz, and something that just, as a whole, seems pointless. If anything, it’s a right step back for Willow, when she instead spends the rest of this season having some brilliant development. Indeed, Willow’s growing power as a witch really begins to take effect here, and she starts to become a more and more powerful resource. She’s also considerably braver here than the meek, shy girl from Season One, standing up to a very deadly Faith and being less and less dependent on Buffy to always save her.
And then there’s Oz. He’s a funny one, is Oz. I have nothing against the character, who’s pretty cool, or the actor, who’s also pretty cool (the voice of Chris Griffin is always going to get a thumbs up from me). It’s just that, well – he’s kind of not really anything to write home about. He’s just there. There to be Willow’s boyfriend. There to be a werewolf problem the gang have to deal with every now and again. There to join in the fight and make some occasionally funny contributions to the discussions of the week – but just there. Like I said, he’s not an unwelcome presence, but it is funny how much character he doesn’t really have outside of Willow. As with Cordelia’s Season One appearances, I do wonder why he’s a regular cast member. And it’s pretty telling that he’s not around for long in Season Four. But more on that later.
Whilst Willow and Oz survive the Xander/Willow farcical kiss, Xander and Cordy do not. Cordelia sacrificed a lot to be with Xander, which makes his betrayal of her all the more difficult to swallow. Thus, this becomes a very depressing year for our Cordy, as she kind of can’t go back to her friends, and can’t really stay with the Scoobies. She’s also just – there. But she, like Oz, is an entertaining presence. And thankfully, she gets much better treatment next year, on Angel.
If anything, Season Three once again shows us how Xander can be the best, and worst, of friends. At his best, he’s unfailingly brave. Indeed, we even get what is one of his greatest moments here, during an episode entirely devoted to him feeling unimportant in the group, in which he ends up secretly saving the day – whilst the group are dealing with their third apocalypse upstairs. His worst? How utterly monstrous he continues to be to Buffy about Angel. Something that is driven not out of anger over Angelus’ actions, but out of spite. Pure spite that, despite everything Angelus did, Buffy would still rather have him than Xander. Thankfully, Xander does come to the conclusion that the well-being of his friends is more important than his hatred of Angel, but it does take him a while to get there.
And what of Giles, who had one hell of a bad time of it last year? Well, Season Three really puts his relationship with Buffy through the ringer. This year, we are introduced to the Watcher’s Council, the body that essentially controls the training and well-being of Slayers and operates worldwide. With unlimited resources, these guys are a bit, well prickish, in particular their leader, Quentin Travis (Harris Yulin). When their little experiment of making Buffy powerless on her 18th birthday is botched, mainly due to Giles’ interference, they decide to sack him, something which puts Giles in a bit of a position for some time. He no longer has an official duty to take care of Buffy, but cares about her too much to walk away. And Buffy, for her part, is very reliant upon his guidance. It’s Giles she turns to when she needs help. It’s Giles who believes her when she tells him Faith has killed someone (after Faith had previously tried to blame it on Buffy). Even when Giles gets a little miffed at the return of Angel, and Buffy not telling him, it’s something the pair are able to work through.
As Giles is no longer Buffy’s Watcher, both her and Faith get a new one, in the form of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof), a complete, bumbling buffoon who really doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing, or how to tackle someone like Faith. Indeed, it’s his mismanagement of her that is one of the big reasons she eventually goes full on nutcase, and, if I’m honest, he’s a bit bloody annoying. Thankfully, Wesley becomes an infinitely more interesting character later on. But I’ll get to him when I start talking about Angel the series.
In a Season with such a brilliant consistency between episodes, it is difficult to pick out the worst episode. Nothing here is particularly bad and is certainly not on the levels of I Robot, You Jane, but if I had to chose something, it would have to be Gingerbread. Basically, a demon tricks the adults of the town, including Buffy’s mum Joyce, into thinking that Buffy, Willow and their friend Amy (Elizabeth Anne Allen) are witches (to be fair, two of them are!). So, they are almost burned at the stake. It’s a bit dumb, Joyce is a bit annoying, and on the whole it doesn’t really go anywhere.
This section is a lot easier. There are plenty of strong episodes to talk about in this Season, so, like last time, here’s five.
In fifth place, it’s Lover’s Walk. Now, if Season Three lacks one thing in particular, its Spike (James Marsters). After such a heavy year in Season Two, and all of the juicy stuff he’s got to come later on, it’s surprising that he only features in one episode here. Good thing its a great one. Spike returns to Sunnydale in a drunken rage, recently dumped by Drusilla (Juliet Landau) thanks to his temporary truce with Buffy last year. Thus, Buffy and Angel are forced to team up with him so he can create a love potion. Hilarious, entertaining, and featuring yet another brilliant performance from Marsters, this one is a winner.
Fourth – Amends. This is focused entirely on Angel, and how he’s literally being haunted by past villains of Angelus, including Jenny, to the point where he considers suicide. Whilst it later turns out the visions were in fact the work of ultra villain the First Evil, its enough to make Angel decide to end it all. Featuring a fantastic performance from Boreanaz and especially Geller, this episode marks a clear turning point for Angel. He realises he cannot run from his past. He has to embrace it to move forward, and become the warrior for good that he’s always had the potential to be. Basically, the entire premise of his own show.
In third place, we have Graduation Day Part One. The first of the two-part final sees Faith poison Angel, in order to keep Buffy distracted whilst the Mayor puts his final plans into motion. The cure for the poison? Slayer’s blood. Something that Buffy decides to get from Faith. Hence, we get the final show down between the two, which is by far the best fight scene the show has delivered up to this point. Buffy emerges victorious – but not before Faith throws herself off the building to make sure Angel can’t get her blood. Nasty.
Which brings us to second – Graduation Day Part Two. With no other options, Buffy must let Angel feed off her, as a final, rather suggestive end to their relationship. Secretly assembling well-known high school faces, Buffy leads an army against the Mayor, unfortunately being too late to save Principle Snyder (Armin Shimerman). Big battle, big explosions – a fantastic end to a great season.
And, no surprise, but first place goes to the episode that, for many fans, may well be the best of the lot – The Wish. Cordy, depressed over the breakup with Xander, decides to blame all of her problems on Buffy – and wishes she had never come to Sunnydale in the first place. Trouble is, she makes her wish to Vengeance Demon Anyanka (Emma Caulfield), a very important character as time goes on. Thus, Cordy is thrust into an alternate reality, where Buffy never arrived, Xander and Willow were turned into Vampires and the Master (Mark Metcalf) won. These days, alternative realities are kind of done to death in TV, but here it’s an absolute treat. There’s so much to like, from Giles and Oz leading the human resistance to the Vampire lords, to the Master showing us why he’s lived so long by embracing industry to mass produce blood based products, to Buffy turning up as a rather moody, confrontational woman and getting easily killed by the Master – yep, this episode is pretty much a masterpiece. Kudos to all involved.
So, overall, there’s no denying that Season Three of Buffy is an extremely strong piece of work. You do leave it feeling very satisfied, having enjoyed a brilliant season of strong characters, brilliant acting and some superb lessons. Dushku is simply born to play Faith, providing us an intriguing look at what happens when a Slayer goes bad, and the consequences of that. However, as a whole, it doesn’t quite measure up to the intensity of Season Two. On re-watch, I was actually surprised how many monster of the week episodes there are, especially in its first half. It’s only really about 2/3s of the way into the Season that things really get going, something that is actually rather surprising. But this does not detract from the strength of the writing, or the complete confidence the show now has in itself. Whilst not quite as good as its predecessor, it’s still very good indeed. And definitely one of the show’s best runs.
Join me next time as I talk about Buffy Season Four. Now, that one is going to be fun.