Season three of Buffy The Vampire Slayer lacks the powerful metaphorical throughline of season two. This isn’t the epic love story of teenage dreams injected with the tropes of horror and vampires where every turn feels like an ordinary emotion amplified; I mean, that’s present but it all feels much more scattered. It’s significant to me that Buffy doesn’t actually meet the main villain until the final few episodes; he’s closer to The Master of the first season in a structural sense, in that the majority of his scenes are comedy setpieces instead of pushing the plot forward. The closest I can identify to plot threads are really two plot threads, and the first and most obvious is “what do we do now that the epic adventure is done?”.
This turns the majority of the season into more of a character study, as the people we’ve been following start really defining themselves outside (and sometimes within) Buffy’s needs. The most famous aspect of this is in the episode “The Zeppo”, where both the joke and the poignancy is in Xander having his own little adventure as the events of a much more formulaic episode happen around him. As funny as this can be – I particularly like him stumbling into Buffy and Angels’ melodramatic fight – I find it blunders its way into the exact kind of patronising to teenagers that the second season brilliantly avoided. As an adult, I don’t need to be told that other people have their own goals and inner lives outside my epic vampire melodrama, and I can recognise someone lecturing me (as well as the intended viewer) on that here.
On the other hand, “wow, other people have their own goals and inner lives outside my epic vampire melodrama” is, legitimately, a part of the teenager experience, and not only does the season legitimately present this idea as part of the structure, tone, and morality of the story as opposed to a finger-wagging, this feels like a logical time for it to come up (legitimately). On the most basic, this-is-how-the-world-works level, Buffy is in her final year of high school and has reason to consider her own future and to recognise that other people may not necessarily be in it – or if they are, may not be in it the same way. On an emotional level, we have so strongly developed these other characters and their goals, views, and feelings that there is simply nowhere for them to go but forward.
What’s most interesting – and this is where fiction is always best – is how the characters seem to explode out of the needs of the narrative. I was most intrigued by how this season reveals, perhaps unintentionally, that Giles being both likeable and comprehensible to teenagers also makes him kind of a dickhead. He feels (and is made to feel) that his main flaw is that he loves Buffy too darn much, which is close: his main flaw is that he lets his emotions run away from him unthinkingly and all the time. This is best shown by the whole situation in which he’s fired as Buffy’s Watcher; he spends much of his time brooding* and then snipes at his replacement, Wesley, every single chance he gets and also quite a few more. It’s understandable if hurtful watching a teenager antagonise someone because their feelings are hurt; it’s downright embarrassing to watch a man in his forties do the same thing.
(*To those who love me: I am aware of the hypocrisy)
On the other side of the scale entirely is Oz, and I’m frequently amused and even awed at how much comedy it wrings out of him being a nice person completely secure in himself. Granted, it frequently does this by pairing him up with Xander, who continues to let his desire for coolness get in the way of his acquisition of it every second of every day (“Could be.”), but it’s amazing how many of his jokes come from him extending patience or sympathy to others, refusing to impose himself on them, and even just being thoughtful (I am my thoughts. If they exist in her, Buffy contains everything that is me, and she becomes me. I cease to exist. “Huh.). If Xander is powerfully needy and ineffectually tries to force the world to fit his vision of it, Oz allows the world to work however it wants and he’ll work however he wants. His is a morality based around a complete lack of obligation either way.
(This makes him the best part of an otherwise uninteresting romance merry-go-round this season)
The second plot thread is that of Faith. If Spike was the Bad Boy, Faith is the Bad Girl, and that means more than a gender flip. She shares a lot in common in Jayne of Firefly, not just in her basic personality but in how she represents the exact same thing to Buffy that Jayne does to Mal – she acts upon the impulses that our heroine deliberately avoids most of the time; impulses towards violence, selfishness without cause. Much like Buffy, her father is out of the picture and she snags herself a father figure, which is where the Mayor shifts from a mildly funny joke to a very funny character.
The neat thing about Whedon’s characters is that each one is a Thing, and they’ll keep being that Thing even when it’s inconvenient for them or for the plot or whatever point Whedon is hoping to make (which he usually has the sense to integrate into the Thing). The villain being a ‘Jimmy Stewart riff who spouts gee-willikers observations about family, community, and good old-fashioned elbow grease while sacrificing human lives in his quest to become an immortal giant snake’ guy is the kind of thing your average post-Whedon show would do; I could just about see other shows also having him earnestly give our heroes genuine good advice about their relationship and its potential future. What I doubt you’d see that much is him forming a real paternal relationship with his minion.
We end up with two effects of this. The first is that Giles and his dickheadness is put into perspective; he might be a petty dumbass, but he’s one of the few people invested in Buffy as a person rather than an idea. Both he and the Mayor are awed by their charges and frequently tell them so. The second is that we see Buffy’s desire to save other people play out in a new key. Faith is one of the few people she can really relate to, and she’s taken aback when that ability to relate hits its limits. She assumed that because they share Slayer duties and a desire for freedom and a Whedonesque sense of humour that they also share a sense of responsibility and an interest in other human beings, something she is violently shaken out of believing.
It’s a fun story to go through on television – the discovery that your friend is actually kind of a bad person, a reversal of “I Only Have Eyes For You”. I figure part of the reason Buffy dawdles on dealing with Faith (aside from having to fill twenty-odd episodes and also aside from the fact that the task is difficult) is that Buffy either thinks she can talk Faith out of it or because taking her down would feel like taking herself down. On the one hand, she’s genuinely hurt that someone she finally thought she could really relate to has betrayed her; on the other, she believes they think enough alike that she can get through to Faith without resorting to violence. That story ends up being the most fun kind of story, and a continuation of the theme of the show: the loss of innocence.