This is Buffy the Vampire Slayer's finest year. It's
doesn't have the strongest story arc; that was in season two. It doesn't have
the best individual episodes; "Hush" and "Once More With Feeling"
are yet to come. It doesn't have the strongest cast; Angel, Cordelia, and
Oz are great, but their fourth season replacements (Spike, Riley, Anya, and
Tara) are even more satisfying.
What the third season has is astonishingly solid work by everyone involved. It has Eliza Dushku's Faith and Harry Groener's Mayor, who are written and played to perfection. It has only one of the show's weakest episodes. It doesn't have glaring missteps in its main arc; for all that I love seasons four and five, they have points at which the writers forget plot points or change them hoping desperately that viewers won't notice.
In many ways, season three is the perfect conclusion of the story of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It builds to Buffy's graduation, as a high school student and as a student of the Watchers. It even builds to an appropriate graduation from first love. If you want to stop watching Buffy at its artistic peak, stop here. But if you want to keep having fun, you've got at least two more seasons to go.
I'm not going to go into much depth about this season. Here are episode summaries to remind you how good this season is, or to convince you that I don't have the slightest idea of what I'm talking about:
Creator/producer Joss Whedon writes and directs "Anne," which asks and answers the question, "Who is Buffy?" Watch for Buffy as the worker's hero, armed with hammer and sickle. It starts with Depressing Buffy, who quickly gives way to the Girl-Power Buffy we know and love. Note regarding season six: Buffy has worked as a waitress. Those skills would get her a better-paying and more flexible job than working the counter at a burger chain.
Marti Noxon writes "Dead Man's Party." A Nigerian mask raises the dead, and Buffy must make a new life for herself. There's a wonderful moment when Giles is alone in his kitchen, accepting that Buffy's returned. Notes regarding season six: When Snyder makes a joke about Buffy in a costume at Hotdog On A Stick, the disdain for people working minimum-pay jobs is appropriate; it's coming from a bad guy. When the Scoobs argue and Xander is the one who sees things clearly, it's a nice moment for Xander because it rarely happens and he quickly hands the Brains of the Outfit hat back to Giles, Willow, and Buffy. But mishandling either of these elements will make it look like the show's creators despise minimum-wage workers (see the staff of the Doublemeat Palace) and that girls need guys to solve their problems (see the resolution of season six).
David Greenwalt writes "Faith, Hope & Trick," an amazing episode that introduces Faith the Slayer and Mr. Trick. There are too many fine moments to mention. From a writer's point of view, Giles' final comment on the binding spell for Acathla is perfection.
Noxon's "Beauty and the Beasts" must've sounded fine in theory: Oz is suspected of killing a student as a werewolf, then it looks as if Angel did it, then it turns out that the story is actually a Jekyll-Hyde tale about an abusive boyfriend. Unfortunately, the execution is simple-minded and heavy-handed. There's "Angel-in-chains" for bondage fans, and the story ends with Angel saving Buffy rather than Buffy saving herself.
Greenwalt's "Homecoming" is classic Buffy. It introduces the Mayor, brings back the surviving Gortch brother with his new bride, and gives Cordelia a grand moment when she shows that arrogance is a superpower.
Jane Espenson's "Band Candy" has the adults in Buffy's life acting like the teenagers they were. The only flaw in this episode is an insufficient number of babies at risk in the end: if the whole town was affected by the spell; the whole town's supply of babies should've been endangered.
Douglas Petrie's "Revelations" may be the first BtVS to veer firmly into soap opera. But it's great soap opera, as almost every friendship is tested. And unlike later BtVS soap opera episodes, here, every misunderstanding ends in a nicely choreographed fight.
Dan Vebber's "Lovers Walk" continues the soap opera: the focus is entirely on young people's sexual relationships. There's no examination of the Watcher-Slayer relationship, or the mother-daughter. But it's more great soap opera, relieved by lots of humor. Spike wants Drusilla back; he figures Willow can cast a love spell to achieve that. He gets one of the great romantic lines of the series: "I may be love's bitch, but I'm man enough to admit it." Season two made us suspect that vampires could love. This episode confirms it. Angel took one path to morality by being cursed with a soul, whatever that meant. Until it's undone in season six, Spike seems to be taking another, one in which the company of Buffy and her friends makes him question the accepted relationship between vampires and humans.
Noxon's "The Wish" introduces Anya the Vengeance Demon. The final scene hints at the Anya we come to know and love. It also gives us a look at a world where Buffy had not come to Sunnydale, and the Master rules the town, and Evil Willow rules our hearts. You can tell this is a Noxon offering: there's more S&M fun with Angel. It's appropriate here, in one of my favorite episodes.
Whedon writes and directs "Amends." The First Evil makes its first appearance. The final scene takes an interesting turn, in an attempt to do a classic Christmas tale. It's simultaneously wonderful and wrong: Buffy shouldn't benefit from miracles, even on Christmas. Her job is to be the miracle. It makes the ending feel unresolved: the First Evil seems to have been forgotten rather than thwarted. Yet it's a sweet ending, and it's nice to see Faith and Buffy become friends again, after several episodes of being separated by events and misunderstandings.
Espenson's "Gingerbread" is the story behind the story of Hansel and Gretel. Joyce Summers decides to start M.O.O., Mothers Opposing the Occult, and witches are her first target. It's a slight episode, but as one expects from Espenson, fun.
David Fury's "Helpless" is another of the show's finest episodes: Buffy discovers that the Watchers are manipulative creeps, and Giles is torn between his love for Buffy and his duty to his job. This features the scariest vampire in the show -- but he's another vampire who suggests that the official story about vampires isn't true, because he, like the Gortches, has stayed the person he was before he became a vampire.
Vebber's "The Zeppo" finally tells us what Jimmy Olsen does while Superman saves the universe. This is Xander's story. And it's nice to be reminded that sidekicks have their stories, too. The episode is both wildly funny and, at the end, very moving, in the tradition of BtVS writing at its best.
Petrie's "Bad Girls" introduces Wesley Wyndam-Pryce and kicks the Buffy-Faith story into high gear. From here to the end of the season, the show comes closer to perfection than any television fantasy series ever. Noxon's "Consequences" looks at what happens when a Slayer goes very, very bad.
Whedon writes and directs "Doppelgangland" and Alison Hannigan shines. It's a sequel to "The Wish." It makes you love the idea of an Evil Willow. It's a shame that season six didn't embrace the possibilities that this episode offers.
Petrie's "Enemies" focuses on the Mayor's plan to set Angel against Buffy, and hints at the still-unexplored past of John Constan-- I mean, Rupert Giles, who I love, however derivatve his past may be.
Espenson's "Earshot" is one of my top ten Buffys. The list may be longer or shorter than ten, but this one is on it. It should be mandatory viewing for every thirteen-year-old. This episode does what BtVS has always done better than any other fantasy or science fiction television show: illuminate real life by approaching it as fantasy.
Fury's "Choices" has a heavy-handed title that's nicely explored, and Cordelia's life takes a turn in a new direction.
Noxon's "The Prom" is just about perfect. Ditto for "Graduation Day, Parts One and Two," written and directed by Whedon. Characters we've come to love, both good and bad, make their farewells. But all of those farewells are flawless.
Part of the perfection of "The Prom" is that it has the series's validation scene, the moment when the hero is formally recognized as a hero by the community. Usually that scene occurs after the climax. When it's not done right, it feels tacked-on. "The Prom" sidesteps that by having Buffy's validation come before her greatest contest. Part of the perfection of "Graduation Day" is that it completes Buffy's arc as a hero. In the first season, she grows to accept that she is the Slayer. In the second, she learns what that means: even though she becomes part of a group, the Scoobies, the Slayer ultimately must be ready to stand alone and make the hard choices. But in the third season, she transcends the traditional Slayer role itself. She discovers what no one can teach her, what no previous Slayer managed to learn: Other people's definition of the Slayer don't have to apply. By rejecting the authority of the Watchers Council and rallying the community (her high school class) to join her in fighting evil, Buffy becomes, not just the lone Slayer, but the leader who transforms the victimized into victors. That Worker's Hero motif in the first episode of the season wasn't just a joke, after all.
Some fans say BtVS is about empowering girls, but that's only half true. In "Graduation Day," every student of Sunnydale High's graduating class becomes part of the victory. While parents and teachers cower before the unknown, Buffy's peers prove that they've learned the truth of their world, thanks to her. They now know that they have the power to make the world better. Everyone who sees what's wrong and dares to change it will graduate.
I should quibble more, I know. I could wish the show had had a bigger special effects budget, but writing and acting will always overcome the shortcomings of special effects. Now I only have to decide whether to write reviews of the following seasons, because if I do that, I will quibble more.
For now, bask in the glow of a glorious piece of fantastical art.