Buffy's third season is what I'm talking about from now on when I'm describing a TV show “hitting its stride.” There is a stretch of episodes - roughly from the first episode through, oh, until the last - that are nigh-on perfect, building the stakes, the characters, and the setting of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in astounding and often unconventional ways. Up until this point, I would say that I have definitely been a Buffy fan, but that I would rank Buffy below every other Joss Whedon show; after Buffy's third season, I would have to say that this isn't just one of the best seasons of Whedon's career, but one of the best ever.
The incredible thing is how this all comes about by actually making a backwards (or at least sideways) step in the plotting of the show. With the return of Angel as a credible threat in the second season, the show found its “master plot mojo” - Angel being somebody that Buffy cared for deeply made every interaction with that villain hit a lot harder emotionally than, say, The Master from season 1.
Season 3 initially seems to be introducing a couple of, if not totally unconnected-to-the-mythology villains, at the very least, much more random outliers than Angel was. Yet, over the course of the season, the arcs of these villains is filled out so smoothly that one forgets that either wasn’t really a part of this world only a few episodes prior.
The first, and much more hammy, is The Mayor (Harry Groener), a dorky kind of guy who just happens to have evil, world-conquering ambitions. The disconnect between his malice and his affably square persona is played up first for laughs, but eventually for under-the-skin creepiness (in fact, the straight-up horror of this season is much more in effect than in any of the previous ones, to the show’s benefit). And his relationship to Faith, who we’ll get to in a minute, is one of the more oddly touching, if fucked up beyond all fuck elements of the show.
Faith. Yes. Eliza Dushku comes to town (far more convincingly than in Whedon’s later Dollhouse, it must be added), first as the “second-second Slayer” under the same alternate-timeline rules that first brought Quendra to Sunnydale. She is, in essence, Buffy as seen through a funhouse mirror; a kind of “Dark Link” to make a milieu-appropriate Ocarina of Time reference. She first shows up as a means of deepening the character of Buffy, as all good foils do. Whereas Buffy feels the emotional toll of her status as the “Chosen One,” Faith sees slaying as an almost sexual form of releasing pent up anger, frustration, or any other number of emotions. She’s very much the “body” to Buffy’s “mind,” relying on intuition and instinct rather than careful planning.
This dichotomy between responsibility and hedonism is meaningfully explored for the first half of the season (while any number of quasi-monster-of-the-week things go on in the background, tied much more competently to the master plot than ever before), and then… things go to shit. Angel is released from hell (giving David Boreanaz only a very small amount to do on Buffy before his eventual exit to his own spin-off show), Faith’s devil-may-care attitude leads her right into the clutches of the Mayor, and the show kicks up the stakes (both literally - pun! - and structurally) in all of the most glorious ways.
Faith’s arc is easily the most attention grabbing, given how it references everything from Shakespeare to Star Wars, but she’s not the only character to see tremendous growth in this season. Giles’ character is given a similar “growth by way of a foil” scenario when the Watcher’s council sends Wesley (Whedon-regular Alexis Denisof) to monitor Giles and Buffy. It’s here that we learn, through Wesley’s stodginess and overbearing attention to detail just how much Giles has grown throughout these seasons. He’s now a much more sensibly grounded person, someone who carries a special connection with his ward (a recurring theme in Whedon’s shows, apparently) and is much more relatable and human for it.
Elsewhere, certain characters - namely, Xander in “The Zeppo” and Willow in “Doppelgangland” - are given “showcase” episodes, where for one hour, we are given a much more in-depth look into the psychology and inner workings of said character (not coincidentally, these are two of the best episodes of the season, because, well, Xander and Willow fucking rule). There’s also some heavy duty arc work being done through these two characters relationships with their respective partners - Willow and Oz continue their adorable relationship, Xander dates Cordelia, then Anya, while Xander and Willow explore their feelings for each other. Indeed, this is a much more relationship-focused season than Buffy had seen before; here, it works really well, though it does end up taking the show down a ‘shipping narrative hole in future seasons from which it only just recovers.
Amidst all of this growth in the characters and the plotting and the themes, there’s unfortunately one element that gets left behind: Buffy herself. At times, Sarah Michelle Gellar almost seems like a guest star on her own show. It’s not that Buffy was ever a terrible character or that the showrunners thought of her as “lesser than”, but it’s clear that at this point in the show’s run, Whedon and his future-hall-of-fame writing staff were much more interested in the ensemble than the “team leader” concept. While I certainly believe that it was to the show’s benefit (until the retroactive attempts to reframe the show as the “Buffy spectacular” in season 4 fell flat), I definitely think there are certain elements, specifically in her short-lived maudlin phase at the beginning of the season, that did more harm than good for Buffy’s characterization going forward.
But this is just so much more of a confident show than it was merely one season earlier, and even if season 3 never reaches the operatic grandeur of “Buffy fights the one she loves,” everything is operating on such a high level that it doesn’t even matter.