The show has never been this confident. Running fresh from the success of season two, Buffy’s third season is its strongest yet, a solid, highly consistent 22-episode run with non of the shakiness of previous years; everyone here – from writers to directors to cast – knows exactly what they’re doing and the show flourishes – there’s no longer any questioning the silliness of the concept; this is a great television put together with pride. Season three is where the show – in terms of writing and themes – really begins to grow up, as the characters come to the end of their school run and prepare themselves for the real world beyond. This is essentially the end of an era – Buffy’s high-school days come to an end here and the show’s dynamic changes forever; post season three, there’s no school, no library, no Angel, and so season three comes with a great sense of change and closure. It’s perhaps not as brave as season two, and doesn’t push its characters to the same emotional depths – there’s nothing as powerful or game-changing as ‘Innocence’ or ‘Becoming’ here for example – but it is a far stronger season overall, working with a sense of confidence and consistency which makes for some fantastic television.Right away, audiences can see the difference in Buffy‘s third year – the show looks fantastic, crisp and bright as the direction and design really come into their own here. Season two, by contrast, can occasionally look grainy, with its television roots occasionally rearing up in the lighting and sets – three however looks cinematic throughout and the sheer strength of the show on a production values alone really illustrates how far the series has come. The stronger look is matched by the quality of the episodes here – three is a highly consistent season, and this, coupled with the confident tone, make it feel like one long episode. With less monster-of-the-week moments, we’re presented generally with character and arc pieces, with every episode serving to develop either the plot or the characters – the season is consistently progressing and never stagnates; you really get the sense here that the writers made the most of every minute of screentime. Whedon and co. knew they were making something great by this point. Also, the show’s rhythms – the switching of tone and genre, comedic to dramatic, action scenes to horror to smaller character moments – are fully formed here and in some ways, season three feels like definitive Buffy. It certainly gets the balance of the show, and is rivalled only by season five as the best Buffy has to offer. ‘Anne’ is an interesting opener, taking us out of Sunnydale for the first time, and works to pick up the pieces after the devastating ‘Becoming.’ The show seems to resolve Buffy’s departure and trauma rather quickly – she’s back by ‘Dead Man’s Party,’ an episode which in true Buffy fashion, uses metaphor to explore character problems, and after a few tense and realistic arguments between the Scoobies things seem to reset back to normal. One the surface it’s almost too easy, and it could be argued that Buffy should have spent more time away, that it would have been interesting to see the gang develop without her for awhile. But it’s important to the note the impact Buffy’s escape has on the dynamic of the group; essentially, things are never as good as they were pre ‘Becoming’ – the gang are not as close as they were in season two, with a distance forming between them for the first time here which gradually alters the core of the show. It’s sad in some ways, but a great indicator that the characters are growing up and starting down their own paths; in season three, spurred on by the catalyst of Buffy’s breakaway, the main character really begin to develop. Individual episodes throughout the season are fantastic, and it’s here the writers really begin to play with the formula. Episodes like the self-aware, constructively deconstructive ‘The Zeppo,’ the comedic cleverness of ‘Doppelgangland’ and ‘Earshot,’ (which contains essentially the mission statement of the show – Buffy’s clock tower talk) and the dark, reality altering fantasy of ‘The Wish’ really start to push at the boundaries of the show’s medium. These episodes are unique in the way they alter structure and storytelling, and generally explore how far the series can go, setting up the brilliant television game-changers – ‘Hush,’ ‘Restless,’ ‘The Body,’ ‘Once More With Feeling,’ – of later years. Here was the moment the writers really realized the potential of the show and began to stretch the concept into something new and exciting; it’s hard to think of another television show which pushes itself like Buffy, a program which refuses to give in to limitations of structure and style. The arc is bigger in season three and much more integrated throughout each episode. Two was wonderful on a character level, but in terms of overall plot, had little going on besides Angel wanting to kill Buffy – his master plan to end the world didn’t appear until the final two episodes and comes across a little jarring. Three isn’t like this – we’re introduced to The Mayor (Harry Groener) early on and the plot slowly develops as we learn of his shady dealings and monstrous intentions. We move away from vampires as the Big Bads here – with poor vampires never reaching their original threat levels again, becoming something of a stock-joke for the series – and instead get a far grander, and very tense plot, with the Scoobies working together as a great unit to tackle The Mayor. And The Mayor is a truly amazing villain – not as threatening as Angel, but extremely well-written, with a slight Twin Peaks-esq vibe in his dialogue and duality, eerily up-beat and polite in a great parody of the smiling pandering of politicians; he comes across as a genuinely nice guy and is excellently played by Groener, who remains light and bubbly throughout his run, undercutting his performance with a brilliant edge of darkness towards the graduation climax. Groener is a joy to watch and The Mayor is one of the greatest villains on Buffy; he’s just so fun, building great horror through the contrast of his happy demeanor and demonic intent. And he’s given a great partner in Faith (Eliza Dushku), the bad slayer who loses her way and becomes the Mayor’s right hand woman. Faith is one of the greatest characters on Buffy and truly fascinating to watch; essentially, she represents the road not taken. Dushku plays the role with such perverse lust and energy that Faith captivates whenever she’s on screen, standing as easily the sexiest character within the entire show. With Buffy working as the good slayer, with her honour and drive to do good, Faith represents the darker elements of the heritage – the lust, the destructive nature, the death and violence. Beginning with Faith, the writers begin to explore the more demonic elements of the slayer, a theme which runs on throughout the rest of the show, becoming especially important in the darker fifth season as Buffy searches for her identity. Buffy isn’t quite ready for the darkness yet, and so we have Faith, a character who causes great clashes within our hero. Faith is a the slayer without the friends, without the mother, and is somewhat of a tragic figure, initially desperate to do good and prove herself, she loses everything after accidentally killing a man, and when she turns to the dark side, it feels fitting, it feels like a natural development for her character. Faith essentially, despite her bold and brash, sexy personality, has utterly no self-esteem and completely envies Buffy and Buffy’s life; it makes sense that when she can’t be Buffy she lashes out against her. Faith is a shimmering time-bomb throughout the season and provides a lot of the momentum, creating a wonderful dynamic with the central slayer. Buffy feels close to Faith because she can see something of herself in her; Faith represents the darker inner urges which Buffy will later explore and the two at this point, have a sisterly relationship which turns to realistic rivalry; they both love and hate one another, respect one another yet are repulsed by each other two. They understand each other even when they’re against one another. No other character in the show hits Buffy quite like Faith does, and essentially, they work as two halves of the same coin, mirroring elements of one another back and forth. She’s a fantastic villain and a great character catalyst for Buffy. Buffy herself gets some strong development in season two, generally becoming a slightly darker character. These changes are subtle and don’t really become clear until later years, in retrospect however her road starts in season three. She never quite gets over killing Angel in the previous season, which causes distance between her and her friends who have no idea what she’s been going through. What’s interesting in season three is that it marks the time when Buffy begins to accept her slayer heritage; the initial dynamic of her wanting a normal life and being burdened with her job begins to crumble here; in some ways she becomes a little less human as she accepts her responsibility. She is unable to run away from being the slayer in ‘Anne,’ accepts she can’t be a normal girl in ‘Helpless,’ and through Faith, comes to realize that she may actually enjoy her role, that perhaps being the slayer has given her a sense of entitlement and power, a superiority complex which the show will come back to in later years. The fact that Faith understands this goes some way to explain the effect she has on Buffy. As Buffy accepts her role she becomes a far stronger character, moving into womanhood for the first time, with scenes such as her quitting the Watcher’s council and rallying up the school for the climax illustrating how strong she’s become. Buffy is a confident leader here and really an iconic, powerful character, with Gellar really coming through with a sense of strength and witty greatness; this is where Buffy starts to become unstoppable. Bringing Angel back so quickly does undercut the tragedy of season three but the writers handle the situation well, with Buffy initially hiding her man until the Scoobies find out, leading to some wonderful drama as Xander and Giles especially wonder how Buffy’s so willing to forgive him after all the damage he caused. Unable to have sex, the two simmer with tension throughout the whole season, and you do get the sense that Buffy really loves him, even going so far as to kill for him towards the end. Her relationship with Angel functions in an on-and-off capacity throughout the season and is one of elements which keeps Buffy’s character grounded and human. When Angel finds her schoolbook, covered in ‘I Heart Angel’ doodles, its a clear reminder that Buffy is still just a girl, and her devastating breakdown at the breakup, beautifully acted by Gellar, confirms that Buffy’s still got a way to go before she loses her humanity. At this point in the show, the age gap and Angel’s immortality versus her eventual ageing and death serves as a constant reminder of the distance between them, and how in the long run, they’re probably not right for one another. Many older fans of the show still ship the two characters but watching it again, it’s clear they represent the teenage romance; whilst the two will always be extremely close, they’ll never be together, and can never truly grow into their own people with the other one by their side. Angel’s leaving is a sad moment, but one necessary for both characters. In season three, the show begins to move away from Buffy as the main focus, and the rest of the Scooby Gang get some much needed attention. This is season where everyone begins to develop. Willow makes some major strides and becomes a far more assertive, confident character – willing to put herself in danger in episodes like ‘Choices,’ she proves herself to be as brave as Buffy though with a hidden urge for power, and a need not to be taken advantage of. Magic is confidence for Willow and with it, she grows tremendously, her dabbling in witchcraft here an ominous sign of her future development; Willow essentially becomes the most powerful character in the series, and this is where it starts. Her relationship with Oz too is sweet and mature, muddled by her slightly out-of-character mixing with Xander early in the season; their affair comes at an unusual point in the show and is fairly jarring. Xander begins to find his place as the heart of the team, with episodes like ‘The Zeppo’ working to give him some great character development as he struggles to find his place in the world. Giles, in contrast to bookish Wesley, becomes a sexier, cooler figure in season three, fully embracing his father-figure role within the group. Cordelia gets fleshed out after her breakup with Xander though it should be noted she never really adds much but comic relief. She’s a great character, and a lot of fun, but it’s surprising how the show drops her without anyone really noticing. Cordelia becomes far more interesting when she steps onto Angel. Season three, with the characters slightly distant from one another, really allows the core group to grow, a theme strengthened throughout the next year.In terms of themes, season three, with the characters graduating and facing the world for the first time, deals with the idea of identity and authority. This is where the main characters begin to define their adult selves, where they begin to mature and develop and become the people they’ll eventually be. There’s a move away from the teenage years of season two, with Buffy and Willow in particular making the statement to stay on in Sunnydale and keep doing what they’re doing standing as a remarkable indicator of their new maturity. It’s fitting that the characters would begin to define themselves at 18 and the move away from highschool – represented with the literal destruction of the place – into adulthood is a powerful and apt concept. Parallel to this idea is that of authority, particularly the dubious nature of it, an idea relateable to anyone approaching the end of their school years. Episodes question the authority of both Buffy’s mom and Giles, her previously established power-figures, and Buffy also rejects the authority of the Watcher’s Council, choosing to make her own rules. The Mayor too represents the flaws of people in power positions. It’s a season about growing up and realizing that the people in charge aren’t quite as in control as you thought, and how you’ll have to grow to get a grasp on your own life. Season three really, is about graduation. Three is a great season and the strongest yet. It’s consistent, well-written, with a great overall plot and some wonderful villains. Things do change in season three however, and the dynamic of Buffy alters. Moving forward from the teenage school years, the show begins to open up into adulthood and pushes the characters in ways previously unseen. Season three isn’t quite the best the show has to offer – whilst very strong, it lacks the emotional stakes of the second season – something which we’ll come to again during the season five retrospective – but it remains powerful and great to watch. Come season four however, things certainly start to get shaken up, and there are some very exciting times ahead.