“Date, and shop, and hang out, and go to school, and save the world from unspeakable demons – you know: I wanna do girly stuff.”
Season 3 starts with one of the show’s strongest episodes, “Anne”, which boasts impressive cinematography, lighting, and score music. Since it deals with the fallout of season 2’s dramatic conclusion, “Anne” fulfils a very similar function to episode 2×01 one year earlier, but it is far superior in every regard.
This has always been one of my favourite seasons, yet its story-arc is developed a tad slowly, in the shadows, and so a number of stand-alone episodes are put at the forefront for the first half of the season. Re-watching the show, when you already know what is going to come next, this feels a bit like stalling. And nowhere is this more obvious than in episode 3×10 (“Amends”), which must be one of the weakest episodes of the whole show.
These early episodes establish the character of Faith (Eliza Dushku), a new slayer who has blown into town. The genre staples used in these stand-alone episodes include a Jekyll & Hyde scenario, zombies, as well as various spells and curses. Again, as in season 2, spells and possessions allow the cast to play roles different in personality from their usual characters, which is something they obviously enjoy. A highlight in this regard is the complete transformation of posture and body language displayed by Anthony Head (Giles) and Armin Shimerman (Snyder) in episode 6 (“Band Candy”).
In addition to Dushku, the season introduces Alexis Denisof, Harry Groener, and Emma Caulfield, all in important roles, as well as minor supporting characters (like those played by Jack Plotnick (Action) and K. Todd Frick); and it gives more room to the character of Amy (Elizabeth Anne Allen), who had been seen sporadically in seasons 1 and 2.
In general, the cast combination is at its peak here, which is probably why I enjoy this season so much even though it has its fair share of weaker episodes. The core cast have entirely grown into their roles by now, and between them and the newer arrivals and supporting characters, the cast feels just well-balanced and being of a perfect size. That will change of course, as this season ends with high school graduation, and not all characters will join Buffy as she moves on towards her college years.
Xander again gets a stand-alone episode in season 3 that is focussing entirely on him, and Nic Brendon again does a wonderful job carrying that episode. “The Zeppo” is an episode that may be fairly unimportant in connection to the story-arc of season 3, but it is crucial for unfolding and defining Xander’s character – especially in relation to the fact that he is more or less the only member of the core group without any special powers, abilities, or knowledge. Meanwhile, it is quirky and self-referential: by keeping Xander out of the loop about a certain demonic event, the writers play with the question how silly the show must look and sound to outsiders, to people who are merely catching a fragment of dialogue while flipping through channels, for example. But in a way, it is also a sort of quick introduction to the show for new viewers, or for viewers who have missed half a season or more: if you ignore the cheesy, self-mocking tone, the episode very cursorily re-establishes all the characters’ abilities, functions, and relationships, and it re-emphasises the “hell-mouth” issue, etc.
It seems to me that this third season devotes less time and attention to Buffy’s school-life than the previous two seasons. One reason might be that, since the showrunners knew the season would end with Buffy graduating from high school, they were focussing more on things they could carry forward into the coming seasons, like character relationships and the general world outside the school.
The dominant themes of season 3 are secrets, betrayal, and trust. And, to a certain degree, disappointment. These themes are on the one hand tangentially linked to the season-wide story-arc. But they are also linked to all the characters growing up, experiencing pain, and gaining maturity. Many episodes also carry one of these themes in their individual plots, like “Faith, Hope & Tricks”, “Revelations”, “Lovers’ Walk”, and “Helpless”.
The ending of season 3 feels “whole”. I. e., you could easily picture this show ending with season 3; just as you could picture it ending with season 1. There is just a certain feeling of self-containment and closure. The same could not be said for season 2. Maybe this is another reason why I like season 3 and its finale so much.
My overall rating for this season: 7.5 to 8.0 out of 10