“Be Not Afraid of Greatness”: An Analysis of the Third Season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

buffy 1Originally published on Big Tall Words, December 7, 2013

“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”

These lines are from Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s comedies, which features a subplot where a narcissistic Puritan servant is fooled by a fake letter from his mistress that confesses her deep love for him. Oddly, out of this silly and hilarious plotline come these infamous lines: “be not afraid of / greatness. Some are born great, some achieve / greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon / ’em” (2.5.131-3).

As many of us know, Joss Whedon knows comedy, and he’s a huge Shakespeare fan. We would know this even if he hadn’t filmed a fabulous adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing at his house last year; he and his ’verse used to gather for Shakespeare readings, after all. Thus, maybe it’s not a surprise to see some Shakespeare in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The third season of Buffy is really one of the best in terms of character development. We see a lot of foreshadowing in terms of who each character is going to become as they struggle with the prospect of leaving high school (and, you know, saving the world). The lines quoted above, however, serve as a particularly efficient analogy for Buffy, Willow, and Xander’s process of growing up throughout the season. Buffy proves she is born great; Willow chooses to become great; and Xander has greatness thrust upon him (and proves himself worthy of it, too).

Buffy, obviously, has greatness thrust upon her, given that she is the Chosen One. Nevertheless, the third season proves Buffy was born great in a many ways, not the least of which is the way that she continuously shoulders the burden of being chosen. Throughout the series, she chooses to sacrifice her freedom, happiness, and even her life, to save the world that she’s been chosen to protect. The first time we see her do so is in “Prophecy Girl” (S1E12), of course, and, the third season does see her sacrificing her own happiness for that of others, especially in “The Prom” (S3E20). In this episode, she becomes obsessed with the high school prom going off without a hitch. When her friends admit the possibility that they may not be able to go due to supernatural forces at work, Buffy lets them go in her stead, ordering them: “Have. A nice. Time.” Even though this sacrifice may be small, it marks the beginning of Buffy’s development into the self-sacrificing hero that we see in the rest of the series, most notably in “The Gift” (S5E22).

Another way that Buffy shows she is born great is through the emergence and development of her leadership abilities. In the fourth season episode, “A New Man” (S4E12), Riley tells her: “You’re in charge. You’re like, make the plan, execute the plan. No one’s giving you orders.” But Buffy-In-Charge couldn’t exist without her growth in the third season. Prior to this season, Buffy had been put in charge, and, while she may have protested, she eventually succeeded in that role. But in the third season, Buffy actively seeks out leadership positions and flourishes in them. For instance, in “Graduation Day” (S3E21), she devises a plan in which she detonates the library and turns the graduating class into an army to combat Mayor Wilkins. The third season, then, is the first time that we see Buffy the Strategist or Buffy the General in action. Here, Buffy begins to become the hero she is destined to be. The leadership that she develops throughout the third season ultimately leads her to become the key strategist in the fight against evil and break ties with the Council.

Though always a little defiant of Giles’s authority and reluctant to follow orders, Buffy, in the third season, begins to actively rebel against the Watchers’ Council. In “Helpless” (S3E12), Buffy protests the barbaric test the Watchers put her through with a simple but surprisingly effective “Bite me.” In “Graduation Day,” she stands up to the Watchers’ Council (in the first of their many showdowns). “Orders,” she says when Wesley tells her the Council’s wishes. “I don’t think I’m going to be taking any more orders. Not from you, not from them. […] Wesley, go back to your Council and tell them until the next Slayer comes along, they can close up shop. I’m not working for them anymore.” When Wesley protests, “This is mutiny,” Buffy pauses reflexively, and then replies: “I like to think of it as graduation.” This line summarizes the process of growing up that Buffy has undergone throughout the first three seasons, and also hints at the independence she has developed.

Buffy’s defiance of the Council in the third season also sets in motion another central motif of the series, and that is the defiance of patriarchal authority. The unjust divide between Watchers and Slayers (hinted at in “Prophecy Girl”) was developed in “Helpless” and “Graduation Day.” In the fifth season episode, “Checkpoint” (S5E12) Buffy again protests the injustice of a powerful woman (the Slayer) being made to submit to male authority (the Council). Ultimately, in the series finale, “Chosen” (S7E22), Buffy defies the entire patriarchal structure of the Slayer’s history when she gives her power to all the potential slayers across the world.

Thus, the third season shows that, while Buffy may have begun her career as a Slayer by having greatness thrust upon her, she was born great. She may have been Chosen to be a Slayer, but she was born to be a great hero.

While Buffy proves she was born great, Willow achieves greatness in the third season by choosing to pursue magic in a serious way. This choice leads her to become more powerful. At the end of the second season, she chooses to re-ensoul Angel despite the dangerous potential consequences and Giles’s accurate prediction that she will not be able to close the door that the spell has opened. Throughout the third season, we see her developing her magic more and more. Ultimately, Buffy is only able to grant her power to potential Slayers in the series finale because Willow and her magical prowess have grown over the course of the series. Willow achieves greatness through her magic, and this process begins in the third season when she chooses to study witchcraft in earnest.

More importantly, however, Willow achieves greatness in the third season by becoming more confident. She comes out of her shell more in this season. In “Gingerbread” (S3E11), we meet Willow’s mother, an over-bearing academic. When she claims to understand what Willow’s going through, Willow chooses to talk back, seemingly for the first time: “No, you don’t. Mom, how would you know what I can do? The last time we had a conversation over three minutes was about the patriarchal bias of the Mr. Rogers show.” When Willow takes this tone with her mother, it is one of the first times that we see the confident, self-aware woman that she will become. For Willow, the third season is about breaking out of the meek shell that she’d inhabited prior.

“Choices” is a major turning point for Willow.  In this episode, Buffy leads an infiltration to the mayor’s office, but her plan goes awry, and Willow is captured. After floating a pencil and using it to stake her vampire guard, Willow comes face-to-face with Faith, a rogue Slayer who has created rifts between Buffy and her friends, including Willow. Faith, a murderer, threatens Willow. Instead of backing down, as she normally would, Willow stands up to her: “You made your choice,” she tells her. “You had friends like Buffy. Now you have no one. You were a Slayer, and now you’re nothing. You’re just a big, worthless waste.” At this point in the conversation, Faith punches her, but Willow stands her ground: “I’m not afraid of you.” This episode is the first time we see Willow choosing to take a stand, and it’s one of the few times she gets to mouth off to someone.

“Choices” is not only about Willow choosing not to back down from Faith. At the beginning of the episode, she is wrestling with the decision of where to go to college, having been accepted to what seems like every major university across the US and in Europe. At the end of the episode, she makes her choice. She chooses to stay in Sunnydale and fight evil at Buffy’s side, despite having the option to go anywhere and do anything. She tells Buffy:

The other night, being captured and all, facing off with Faith, things just kinda got clear. I mean, you’ve been fighting evil here for three years and I’ve helped some. And now we’re supposed to decide what to do what to do with our lives. And I just realized — that’s what I want to do: fight evil. Help people. It’s a good fight, Buffy, and I want in.

Even without the development of her powers or confidence, Willow makes her choice pretty clear: by choosing to stay in the fight against evil, she is choosing to achieve greatness.

Arguably, Xander doesn’t have greatness thrust upon him so much as he blunders into it. While his two best friends are becoming more powerful, Xander is not. Regardless, he is no less heroic. In the third season, he finally finds his place as an integral part of the Slayer’s group. In this season, he accepts that he is “the one who isn’t chosen,” as he admits to Dawn in “Potential” (S7E12). And, though the process isn’t completed in the third season (in the fourth, Xander is still a bit adrift and out-of-sorts), it has begun. The turning point for Xander’s growth is found in the series’ only Xander-centred episode, “The Zeppo” (S3E13).

The teaser for “The Zeppo” is a fight scene, as in most episodes. Buffy and Faith, aided by Willow and Giles, defeat a couple of vicious demons, and almost two minutes pass before the viewer becomes aware of Xander’s presence, foreshadowing how easily the main characters of the show will overlook him throughout the episode. Once Xander emerges from where the demon presumably threw him, we learn that he had tried to be heroic by leaping into the fray. Buffy suggests, “Maybe you should be fray-adjacent,” despite Xander’s protests that that was where he belonged: “Excuse me? Who in a crucial moment distracted the lead demon by allowing her to pummel him about the head?” By the end of this episode, however, he has realized that it is not where he belongs, and he’s okay with that. He has greatness thrust upon him and lives up to it, though almost no one notices. Thus, he becomes the person, the hero, that he will be by the end of the series.

Throughout the rest of “The Zeppo,” Xander wrestles with his seeming uselessness, which leads him to have a few run-ins with a bully named Jack O’Toole. Since this is Sunnydale, Jack is not only a juvenile delinquent, but he also has access to magic, which he uses to raise some of his friends from the dead. They break into a hardware store, using Xander as their wheelman until he eventually runs away from them. At this point, he wanders into an unexpected sexual encounter with Faith. Afterwards, he realizes that the walking dead hoodlums had stolen supplies to build a bomb. He tries to get Buffy to help him, but she and the others are preoccupied with another apocalypse. Xander is thus saddled with the task of stopping the zombies from blowing up the school (and thereby killing all of his friends).

For the first half of the episode, Xander reacts to situations in a comically fearful way — trying to make jokes, running away, running to Giles and Buffy — but once he realizes he’s really on his own, he steps up to be the hero; however, he doesn’t really understand what it means to be heroic at first. Xander tries to be an action hero. When he finds Jack and his friends walking down the street, he grabs one of them from his car and accelerates. He proceeds to question him about the bomb’s whereabouts. He threatens the zombie: “All right, I’m only going to ask this once, and you better pray you get the answer right. How do I defuse —” but his line gets cut off when the zombie hits a mailbox, lopping off his head. Later, he tries being threatening again, adopting an action hero grumble: “You should have learned by now: if you’re going to play with fire, you gotta expect sooner or later —” but again, his self-aggrandizing is cut short as the zombie turns and flees. What he doesn’t seem to realize that these words, this macho posturing, is unnecessary. He has fought well against the zombies, proving himself to be clever and resourceful in battle. And when it really counts, in the final showdown with Jack as the clock ticks down towards the detonation, he’s calm and logical. He loses the Clint Eastwood growl, and speaks normally, logically: “I know what you’re thinking: can I get by him, get upstairs, out of the building, seconds ticking away… I don’t love your chances.” Jack replies, “Then you’ll die, too.” Xander answers: “Yeah, looks like.” By showing no fear, Xander persuades Jack to defuse the bomb. This courageous, calm, and resourceful Xander is the Xander that we come to know throughout the rest of the season.

The most significant part of “The Zeppo,” however, is the very end of the episode. Buffy, Willow, and Giles discuss the previous night’s adventures. When Giles notes that the world continues to turn, Willow replies, “No one will ever know how close it came to stopping. What we did.” At this moment, Xander enters, and Willow tells him, “You’re lucky you weren’t at school last night. It was crazed.” Without a moment’s hesitation, Xander says, “Well, give me the quiet life.” He doesn’t seek recognition for his part in saving the day. He hands the glory to the others. A few episodes later, in “The Prom,” he does something similar by paying for Cordelia’s dress without seeking thanks. He does the right thing because he knows it’s right, not because he wants glory. This attitude leads him to save the world through saving Willow in “Grave” (S6E22). It is what he praises Dawn for in the seventh season episode, “Potential,” and it is also the reason Caleb targets him as “the one who sees everything” in “Dirty Girls” (S7E18). Xander could not become the man he is at the end of the series without conquering his identity crisis in “The Zeppo.” Thus, by accepting that he will not be in the spotlight, that he will not be great, he has greatness thrust upon him, and he becomes great.

In actuality, we could probably say that every character on Buffy has greatness thrust upon them, even the more peripheral ones like Angel, Faith, Giles, Spike, Cordelia, and even Andrew (Tucker’s brother). However, in the third season, the central three characters of Buffy seem to embody this line more than others. Buffy is born great, Willow achieves greatness, and Xander has greatness thrust upon him. In the third season, they grow up; they grow into their greatness.