Television

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective: Season Four

Season four stands as the transitional moment of the show – it’s the bridge between the more-care free school days and the much darker years to come. There’s a lot of change here – the school has gone, and with it, the dynamic of the library scenes and their structure, as well as the high-school-as-hell metaphor which held the earlier seasons together; there’s also no Angel, no Cordelia, Buffy no longer lives at home, and there’s a whole new college setting to explore. Many didn’t believe the show could continue post school, but Whedon and co. proved audiences wrong, pushing Buffy into new and exciting territory. Whilst four does have a few problems, it stands as perhaps the most interesting season of the show, and the strongest overall in terms of its characters. It’s a fascinating, strange season, and one which deserves more credit from fans. b411The biggest criticism of the fourth season is its overall story arc – Buffy and co. face The Initiative, a shady government organisation who capture and study demons without really being equipped to face them. The Initiative, in true Buffy fashion, are set up smartly, with small hints of their existence in the episodes prior to their revel, and whilst they do mark new territory – a new kind of threat for the Scoobies to face – the problem is they simply aren’t as strong as previous season arcs – Angel’s fall, the Mayor’s accession. Buffy never quite works when it mixes science fiction into the proceedings, though the show does get some mileage out of the contrast between Buffy’s old world style and The Initiative’s impeccable new order. The plot meanders for awhile and suffers from the lack of a strong villain. We’re initially set up with Maggie Walsh (Lindsay Crouse), Buffy’s intelligent and cutting professor, but the switch is made to Adam (George Hertzberg) mid-way through the year; the actual idea was that Walsh would be the villain with brains and Adam the brawn; however acting commitments meant Crouse had to drop out early and Adam unfortunately moved into the spotlight. Adam just isn’t great, a tired Frankenstein-inspired monster with no real psychological impact on Buffy and the gang; he’s just a threat to be bested, and there’s very little at stake with him. The writers don’t quite know what to do with him – setting him up at first as a kind of demon Messiah, this idea goes nowhere, and so Adam flounders. He does get a great demise in the action-heavy ‘Primeval,’ however, in one the group’s strongest moments. b43Though the main plot isn’t so strong, season four works better when you realise the arc isn’t supposed to be the focus at all. It’s more background, and used as a catalyst for some of the show’s finest character moments. And season four benefits from probably the strongest individual episodes of the show’s run – there’s a huge amount of imagination and creativity on display here, as Whedon and co. really begin to push the boundaries of television; there had been hints of this with episodes like ‘The Wish,’ and ‘The Zeppo’ in season three, but four is where things get really interesting. Using the college backdrop – with its notions of experimentation and self-growth, the writers craft some amazing, intelligent episodes here. There are great stand-alone episodes like ‘Something Blue,’ a very funny magic-gone wrong premise; it should be mentioned that in terms of comedy, four is the strongest season of the show – consistently hilarious with the writers and actors at the top of their comedic game here. In a sense, this makes four the breezy transition before the stakes are dramatically raised in season five, and it’s nice to see these characters happy before things truly fall apart. We’re also given clever, self-aware episodes like ‘Superstar,’ an episode which trusts its audience’s intelligence by essentially dropping them into a new show, in a plot solved by the natural strength of the Scooby characters. ‘Superstar’ also illustrates how the writers use stand alone episodes to further the plot – with the key to Adam’s defeat being revealed here. ‘Who Am I?’ featuring the return of Faith and an amazing body-switch performance from Gellar, is another highlight, prying into the tortured psychology of Faith and her damaged, envious relationship with the central slayer. There are a lot of confident episodes here as the writers really deconstruct the formulae and have a lot of fun experimenting with the nature of television; these are the sort of brilliant episodes which raise Buffy above all other genre shows.b45This is best represented by ‘Hush,’ – the show’s silent episode, ‘Hush’ is one of the strongest episodes of television ever, and the beginning of Buffy’s Big Four (the genre-altering and best episodes, starting with ‘Hush,’ followed by ‘Restless,’ and later ‘The Body.’ and ‘Once More, With Feeling) – it’s a genius hour and extremely well-written; with no dialogue to work with, the writers use numerous creative means to get their characters communicating, in an episode all about the difficulties people have in relating to one another. ‘Hush’ is at times hilarious – Giles’s slide-show stands out as a highlight, but is also hugely frightening. The Gentleman are one of the scariest creatures to ever grace the screen, and not just in television terms; these monsters rival even the great movie horrors. Their concept and the nightmarish way they kill – cutting the hearts out of living people who, without their voices, are unable to scream, is absolutely inspired. The episode uses an eerie, rousing score and becomes extremely tense, but what’s perhaps most surprising with ‘Hush’ is that it works beyond it’s gimmick. And so we’re given great moments of character development – Buffy and Riley discovering one another, Giles losing his ties to the real world, Willow and Tara meeting, and Xander and Anya realizing how much they want to be together – this isn’t just a throw-away episode, it’s one which despite altering the genre, completely works within the world of the show, and pushes everything forward. It’s hard to think of any of television show so accomplished. b41Four is the show at its bravest and most confident, and as well as ‘Hush,’ Whedon and his team give us the fantastic season closer, ‘Restless’ – perhaps the most experimental and interesting episode of the show at this point. It’s a bizarre, David-Lynch-esq ride through the Scooby Gang’s dreams, filled with amazing surreal moments and some of the funniest lines in the entire show. It’s also one of the most accurate portrayals of dreams every filmed, up there with Lynch’s Mullholland Drive in terms of uncanny, dream atmosphere. It’s surprising that four chooses to end its arc an episode early – proving once again that The Initiative isn’t the focus here – and instead we focus entirely on the characters. ‘Restless’ is a great summary of everything up until this point – how the characters began, how they’ve grown, and where they’ll go – and serves as a lovely full stop on the first half of the show, working through metaphor and imagery in a clever way to unpick the central gang. It says a lot that Buffy would devote a whole episode to its characters’ development alone, and ‘Restless’ could stand as the greatest episode of the entire show. b48And season four really, is all about its characters. Whilst the Scooby Gang did get some great development in season three, it’s four where things truly open up. With college life, the characters grow up and separate; the core group is never really the same again, but allowing everyone to follow their own paths allows the writers to really unpick them and push them into more interesting areas. Buffy begins in the ‘The Freshman’ as floundering in her new college life; a great episode illustrating the tremendous, confusing change faced by everyone when they move out on their own – she soon regains her new confidence though quickly becomes distant from her friends, falling in with new boyfriend Riley (Marc Blucas). Riley tends to get a lot of criticism from fans, who find him dull, and poor-replacement for Angel, but he serves his purpose within the plot, and highlights some interesting elements within Buffy’s character. b412On an emotional level, Riley is Buffy’s rebound, having lost Angel the year before, she never quite gets over her first love – it could be argued she never gets over ‘Becoming’ anyway -and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. By making the boyfriend, for the first time, her second focus, Buffy herself begins to grow, begins to question her slayer heritage, and essentially, becomes a broader, though somewhat less human character. Riley is her flawed attempt to remain tied to the real world, and though ‘Restless’ ties us back to the idea that Buffy has friends, its become clear by four that Buffy is alone, really, and always will be. Being the slayer isolates her. ‘Restless,’ tying into the slayer history, pushes Buffy to explore her roots in season five, a concept which makes her stronger but ultimately pushes her away from the human world. Buffy herself is evolving in season four, and will never really be the same again. b46Four is also where the show strengthens its core group – this isn’t Buffy the Vampire Slayer anymore, more the Buffy Willow Xander and Giles Show. Willow gets her most dramatic development yet. Using the new-found confidence of season three, and the new arena of college, Willow is able to reinvent herself, in a natural and realistic way, moving away from geeky shy girl to confident, powerful woman. Like most people who are ashamed of their previous persona’s – especially nerdy people who have since grown up – Willow remains afraid of her past, and does her best to detach herself from it. In ‘Doomed,’ for example, she is more upset at being called at geek than finding a body, and ‘Restless’ explores the idea of her hiding from the past by having her revisit school in her ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’ outfit. Willow makes dramatic strides from her previous life here, with her increasing skills as a witch mirroring her growing self-confidence, with only the slightest hints of how dangerous her powers will become. Her relationship with newcomer Tara (Amber Benson) is brilliant; the new sexuality is so subtly portrayed and stands as a realistic look at what happens when two people fall in love; it says a lot that Willow’s lesbian switch comes across as completely natural, it’s so utterly well-written, and inspiring for many gay men and women struggling with the same kinds of issues. For what is on the surface a silly genre show, Willow and Tara are one of the most realistic gay couples on tv, and their relationship becomes the most mature and accomplished of the entire show. It’s here we see the great beginnings, magic again used as a metaphor for experimentation and sex to cleverly side-step television censors. b47Xander, who until now, hasn’t really had much of his own space in the show, also makes some great strides towards finding himself. Building on ‘The Zeppo’ of season three, four seeks to explore Xander’s role within the group. His relationship with Anna (Emma Caulfield) begins here, and the two develop a funny and great love, which begins Xander’s push towards maturity; he grows up through season four. Anya too is a great character, really just a replacement for Cordelia at this point, she gets some amazing lines and is genuinely hilarious when on screen. Spike also returns to the show as a regular fixture, used in four primarily as a comic foil, he too gets some very witty lines across the season. Giles lacks direction with Buffy somewhat older and more independent, his fatherly nature feels lost, and without The Watcher’s Council and the library, he meanders around without much to do, important set up for future seasons. He becomes also more of an integral part of the group, as opposed to an authority figure here too. Four pushes the characters apart throughout the year, allowing Spike to easily dismantle the unit in ‘The Yoko Factor,’ but eventually they come together stronger, each with their own place in the group. As mentioned in the spell at the end of ‘Primeval,’ Buffy is the hand, Xander the heart, Willow the spirit, and Giles the mind. It’s amazing that the show has built its core up this way, and everything really comes together by the end of season four; an excellent look into these characters and their roles within the show. b49In terms of themes, four is about experimentation and growth. Using the backdrop of college allows the writers to highlight all the crazy madness that goes with those years – new lives, new responsibility, parties, sexuality, identity, finding your place in the world, and distancing yourself from younger days. The brilliant in depth analysis of the main cast and the great character moments they all receive, as well as the strong, stand-alone episodes, utterly creative and inspired, drive home the themes of experimentation. Four is the most transitional season of the show too, summing up essentially the first four years – who these characters are and how they got here – and setting up the grander, darker days to come. It’s a season of change, and though it seems more trivial on the surface, four is actually one of the most important years for the show, particular in terms of the characters. In true Buffy fashion, nothing is ever the same again after this season. b410Four is the show at its most confident and creative, and built up of funny, creative episodes with some strong character highlights. And whilst it does lack the stakes of say, season two, it serves a great breather before the bar is raised even higher in season five, the final great season of the show which really pushes the characters to dark new places. Four in retrospect, is a wonderful, enlightening season and one every fan should be proud of.

Five coming soon!

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6 thoughts on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective: Season Four

  1. Pingback: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective: Season Three | Some Films and Stuff

  2. Pingback: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective: Season Five | Some Films and Stuff

  3. Pingback: LGBT Representation in Cinema | Some Films and Stuff

  4. Pingback: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective: Season One | Some Films and Stuff

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