The last we saw of Buffy Summers was of her taking the bus out of Sunnydale to some unknown destination, after killing her vampire-boyfriend Angel to save the world. As you do. Season three opens showing her working as a waitress under an assumed name. But it's not long before the weirdness follows her and sends her home to face up to the consequences of the season two finale.
Back at Sunnydale, Xander, Willow and the others are trying to fight off the vampires without the leadership of the Slayer. This season addresses the relationship between Willow and Xander. First, Willow fancied the oblivious Xander, and then, once Willow got herself a boyfriend, Xander started to feel jealous. Things have come a long way since we first met these characters, and whereas once I would have been happy to see them get together, now I really didn't like seeing them sneaking smoochies whenever they got the chance. Poor Oz! And poor Cordelia. Still, in one way, I'm glad that the inevitable is out of the way now. Although I don't hate Xander's character, I think Willow deserves so much better. Her relationship with Oz survives their cheating. Xander and Cordelia's does not. (I said before, it was never going to last.)
Some new characters are introduced for season three, most notably Richard Wilkins III, mayor of Sunnydale, an apparently genial, fatherly chap who happens to have some nefarious plans of his own. And Faith, the second slayer (Kendra's replacement) a rebellious, angry young woman who is out of control. Faith is played by Eliza Dushku, who I first encountered in Dollhouse, and I observed at the time that she has a very Buffy-ish look to her. I now think that's no coincidence: they are two sides of the same character, Buffy the light, Faith the dark. Faith is how Buffy could have turned out if she didn't have the support from her friends and her mother to keep her grounded, to give her a strong sense of morality. Buffy's conflict with Faith (which could perhaps be interpreted as a conflict between the different sides of her own nature) and the fight to keep the Mayor from transforming into a giant snake monster, is the main plot arc through season three. Because it concerns new characters, it didn't emotionally hook me so much as the story with Angel in season two, but it was entertaining and satisfying to watch, especially in the finale in which the entire graduating class of Sunnydale High join forces to fight the evil (including flaming arrows, because flaming arrows are always awesome.)
I've always thought of Buffy as a high school series, but as Buffy is sixteen at the start of her story, and each season takes place over the course of a school year (like Harry Potter), the show must grow up and move on, like its characters. Season Three finishes with Buffy and co's graduation from high school, and their preparations for university. I felt sad that Willow, after receiving offers from Harvard and Yale, as well as Oxford, decided to study at the local Sunnydale college, but it makes sense in story terms. How could you have a show where each member of the Scooby gang is in a different state? Not to mention the intricacies of filming the series on location. Better to keep them at a fictional college, and build the set to suit the story's need.
There are some marvellous individual stories within season three. I particularly liked "Band Candy," in which students sell chocolate bars to raise money for the school band, and everyone who eats it acts like an irresponsible teenager again. Principal Snyder was both hilarious and creepy acting like a kid, whereas Giles was hilarious with a tough London accent, in a tight t-shirt instead of his usual tweed. This was surprisingly pleasing - and Buffy's mother Joyce certainly thought so, as we discover later on with much hilarity (although I don't think Buffy would share the amusement.) I loved the moment when she confronted Giles about her mother, and he walked right into a tree with shock.
After Giles breaks the Watchers' rules, he is sacked from the Watchers' Council and replaced by Wesley, a younger, Gilesier Giles. It's quite uncanny to watch the two together (simultaneously wiping their glasses with handkerchiefs during an awkward moment.) Wesley is Giles with all the book-knowledge and none of the experience, full of ideas about authority and rules and orders, and not much clue about actually dealing with vampires. Or slayers. Or teenagers in general. All the Watchers seem to be English, all upper-class and probably Oxbridge-educated. Do none of the American universities give a doctorate in Watching? Quite remiss of them, don't you think?
As you could probably predict (considering he has his own TV show) Angel does not stay dead for long, and is the cause of the greatest plot twist yet. After coming back from the dead, his own, good self, and nursed back to health by Buffy, it doesn't take much to turn him evil again: Faith splatters him with blood, and some creepy ninja-dude appears, and boom! Angel is the bad "Angelus" once more. Faith and Angel capture Buffy, chain her up and prepare to torture her. Then we get this marvelous exchange:
He was acting all along! How's about that for a shocking moment! Wonderful, so unexpected, my favourite moment of the series so far.Faith: "What can I say? I'm the world's best actor."
Angel: "Second best."
I knew Angel wasn't around for all of Buffy, and so many times in season three, it looks as though he and Buffy are going to split up, that he's going to leave town, that they won't see each other again. But it takes the entire season for him to actually get his act together and go! It's not that I dislike them as a couple. I want Buffy to be happy. But if he's going to go, can't he just stop faffing and go? He breaks up with Buffy, finally, a couple of episodes from the end, and this time it actually does seem final, with harsh words spoken and a broken heart, but he sticks around to help defeat the Mayor's evil plan before disappearing into the night at the end of the season finale. I think we've seen the last of him for a while. I believe Angel runs parallel to Buffy from now on, although I don't have the DVDs for that. Is it essential viewing to make sense of Buffy, or can I muddle along without it? I think Angel's an OK character, but it's Buffy, Willow, Giles and the others that I'm really interested in.
6. Band Candy: In which all the adults act like teenagers and Giles gets together with Buffy's mother.
9. The Wish: A very dark It's A Wonderful Life episode, with Xander and Willow as vampires.
13. The Zeppo: In which Xander feels excluded from the vampire slaying, has his own adventures, and we see just snippets of what would ordinarily be the "main" plot.
14-15. Bad Girls/Consequences: In which Faith goes off the rails, and tries to drag Buffy along with her.
16. Doppelgangland: Welcome back Sexy Evil Vampire Willow!
17. Enemies: The one with the big plot twist.
18. Earshot: In which Buffy can hear everyone else's thoughts.