Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4

07/07/2012

What follows is part of a series of viewing journals I’m working on for each season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The latest entry covers season 4. It’s not a review; it’s an analysis, so there will be quite a few spoilers up to and including every single thing that happens in the show. Naturally it would be great if fans would contribute their opinions in the comment section below. I know this is a divisive season and want to hear people’s diverse thoughts.

Season 4

Now that I’ve been a certified Buffyphile (as in cinephile, not pedo) for a couple weeks, I’ve participated in enough inside geek discourse to know most fans aren’t in love with season 4. “The initiative never really works,” “Adam doesn’t pay off,” “Oz leaves too quickly,” “Buffy’s character is inconsistent,” “Riley is bland,” “Parker is stupid,” “Beer Bad!” And while I don’t disagree on any one point, I actually found most of season 4 to be a refreshing change of pace for the series. Joss Whedon is a showrunner who loves to upset the balance the moment he senses his characters or audience have found a safe place. While public opinion suggests he did more than enough upsetting with season 4, I found many of the darkest clouds, such as the inability to establish a compelling central plot, had silver linings that almost cancelled them out. Adam and The Initiative might be lame, but they at least have the decency to be lame in the same place for long periods of time, leaving more screentime for Xander, Anya, Willow, Giles, and Spike — which can only be a good thing.

One thing I don’t see anybody complaining about is this season’s standalone concept episodes. Whedon-helmed silent horror homage Hush and 40 minute surreal dream sequence Restless are the two big ones for the obvious reason that they’re among the greatest things that have ever happened in human history; but I also loved the goofy Thanksgiving-centric Pangs (despite a ham-handed Angel cameo) and the belated conclusion to the Faith saga, Who Are You (Whedon’s third contribution this year). Once again the Halloween centerpiece, Fear, Itself, was a comic gem (“Xander, don’t taunt the fear demon.” “Why? Can it hurt me?” “No, it’s just tacky.”) while Giles finally got a perfectly charming concept episode all to himself, A New Man, as did, interestingly enough, Jonathan with Superstar. Furthermore there was a glut of episodes that featured Alyson Hannigan crying — Wild at Heart, Something Blue, and New Moon Rising to name a few. I knew something about the appeal of Hannigan’s tears from past seasons, but Willow’s relational, um, flux this year meant I could finally see a full demonstration of their true power. On a scale of things that are empirically  effective sans context, I think they rate somewhere between children with cancer and Batman.

But yeah, there are some pretty awful standalone episodes too; like the worst since season 1, which is especially upsetting considering that by this point in the show you could probably just stand the actors in a circle blindfolded and they’d make up compelling drama. In a few cases I’m at a loss for how these ideas even got greenlit. Imagine the pitch for Where the Wild Things Are: “Buffy and Riley’s perpetual sex fuels the spirits of children who were tortured by a fundamentalist Christian caretaker in the fifties to turn a college fraternity into a haunted house that gives people orgasms.” “Humna?” And Joss delivers his biggest stinker of the whole series with debut The Freshman, an episode that defines all the reasons why fans resent this year (even though I can never fully hate an episode where Xander tells Buffy, “You look like you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer of the puppy”). Buffy is way too meek and awkward, on a scale that might seem appropriate if she were just a surrogate for other college freshmen but which feels totally absurd and off-base if you’ve watched a single episode of season 3. The followup Living Conditions isn’t much better, despite surprising me by actually going with the roommate rape metaphor that I was only joking about. And then the notorious Parker subplot taints the next few episodes after that. (Actually, now that I’m putting it down on paper, this season really did open terribly) Episode 3, The Harsh Light of Day, cancels out the most disappointing Spike appearance ever by making Anya a central character, while episode 5, Beer Bad… you know, I think I’m gonna leave Beer Bad alone. Some things are just better left unsaid.

I think what upsets people the most about season 4 is the way the characters they love seem to have been hijacked and modified to fit new, more college-centric molds. Would Buffy really have so much trouble adapting to dorm life? Maybe. And could she be tricked into bed by a jerk like Parker? It’s possible. But is this mousy, insecure, emotionally brittle Buffy even the same character who went through such a complex journey of self-actualization a year ago? That’s a more difficult question. And Xander was always a slacker, but all of a sudden he’s a caricature of one: living in his parents’ basement, moving from dead-end job to dead-end job with no direction or purpose. I mean at least in the past he was resourceful. And suddenly Willow is awesome and outgoing. While it’s nice of them to let Hannigan show off her natural beauty a bit more (as opposed to doing what she could in those awkward overalls), doesn’t her newfound confidence completely disregard her character’s primary social fears she was very much still dealing with at the end of season 3? What kind of summer did she have with Oz that now she’s the very definition of reserved self-assurance? Is she more confident because smarter people adjust better to college, or has she been fundamentally changed to complete the idea that smart people adjust better to college?

I don’t have good answers to these questions. I don’t know what the characters would look like in some alternate season where they evolved a bit less abruptly, but I do know people typically change when they leave high school and sometimes those changes can be shocking and unpleasant. Sometimes it takes a lot of work just to rebuild pre-existing character traits in the wake of a major life change. In that sense Giles and Anya, the least college-centric characters, might grant some validity to this season’s new direction. Anya was a demon and still has a lot of demon in her, but now stuck in the body of a young woman, she’s inherently going through many changes she can’t control or understand. She’s completely different from the maniacal villain who helped vampire Willow attack the Bronze a year earlier. Still, I buy her lack of confidence because she’s trying something new with her life and that’s always hard at first. And Giles doesn’t know where his life is heading so it seems natural he would journey down a number of strange avenues. He’s always been a hard worker, but he approaches these things a bit half-heartedly because he’s no longer as certain of his calling as he was when he was a Watcher and a school librarian. So if I can buy those two characters (and even Spike’s forced transformation) then maybe it’s fair to accept the radical transformation of the other central cast members — even if they do occasionally fall into seemingly incompatible college cliches.

What Works

As I mentioned, Spike and Anya both join the main cast, and surprisingly it’s Anya who comes out on top. At first I was wary of her dating Xander, because good lord, how much more pathetic could that guy possibly be? But Emma Caulfield makes it work because she’s got great chemistry with Nicholas Brendon and she’s just such a comedic force of nature. (also I think I was actually once in a relationship just like theirs) Spike’s re-entry elicited more of a mixed reaction. James Marsters remains wonderful as the unpredictable demonic biter, but after the initial shock value of him joining the Scoobies wears off, the writers really don’t have a whole ton for him to do. He just sort of runs around and cracks jokes and fills a thematic role as a symbol of moral ambiguity. He’s certainly nowhere near as wonderful as he was in season 2, despite being played against the whole cast and having a lot more screen time. Of course he’s Spike. Any Spike, even directionless Spike, has to be a good thing.

And I for one loved both of Willow’s romantic subplots. I could tell the Oz story was rushed (an unfortunate side effect of Seth Green leaving the show early) but I still dug his departure episode Wild at Heart. Oz was always something of a mystery to me. He had the whole zen thing going for him, which made him a great contrast to the other, flightier members of the main ensemble; but it also prevented him from ever being an interesting participant in the drama. When I see couples as nonchalant as he and Willow, they’re typically about to get married and they’re terrible to hang out with. So I liked that the necessary rift between them came from Oz’s werewolf side. (his not-at-all-zen alter ego that never really paid off until now) It’s not just that Veruca tempts him. She was never a real option. It’s the fact that there is something wrong with Oz and Willow and he doesn’t want to see it but he can’t help smelling it. Whether the rift in their relationship foreshadows Willow’s lesbian… um, conversion? or whether it’s just one of those things that a half-wolf human would feel, I thought it was handled as effectively as possible given the circumstances.

Willow/Tara works even better, in large part because the show doesn’t make a big thing out of them. I’m sure a sympathetic lesbian romance on TV in the late 90’s was a big deal, and it would have been easy for a low budget show on the WB to try garnering a few public pats on the back for boldly playing such a special interest story. Thankfully the writers avoided that trap and never treated it any differently than they would have Willow and Oz or Buffy and Angel. I realize Tara’s not the most compelling character in the world (for some reason Willow attracts the quiet ones with no charisma) but it’s not Amber Benson’s fault she has a thankless role. Her Tara is perceptive and fragile and provides just the intimate balance Willow needs in her crazy, Scooby-oriented life. I found their scenes together incredibly sweet in a way no relationship on the show had ever been.

As I alluded to earlier, the storytelling this year is far more lax than is common for Whedon. I might even call it whimsical. Typically in a Buffy season, there’s some kind of archvillain making noise by episode three or four. Adam, the messianic half-human/half-demon/half-robot, doesn’t show up until episode thirteen. Yes that’s the exact moment when Angel and Faith turned bad too, but episode thirteen is also the first time Maggie Walsh and the Initiative turn on Buffy which means that for the first twelve episodes there’s no visible evidence of a Spike and Drusilla or The Mayor setting up for their ultimate big bad. There are a few instances of vague foreshadowing. Nothing else.

The rest of that time is spent with the characters, whose own lives turn out to be pretty aimless as well. Of those first twelve episodes, the initial five are devoted to Buffy acclimating to college life, four are structured around some sort of party, there are at least three wacky “spell gone wrong” comedies, and a couple episodes solely about Willow’s romantic escapades. At one point Xander is so bored he suggests to Giles, “Well how about this: we whip out the Ouija board, light a few candles, summon some ancient unstoppable evil? Mayhem, mayhem, mayhem; we show up and kick its ass.” Giles pauses to think about it before shooting him down with a halfhearted, “Eh, a wee bit unethical.” When a depressed Spike tries to stake himself in Doomed, it’s again Xander who comforts him by saying, “Look at the happy. If we don’t find what we’re looking for, we’re facing the apocalypse,” to which Spike replies, “Really? You’re not just saying that?”

I’m not sure how other people feel about this specific aspect of the show, but I really enjoy it. This season’s best episodes are its most indulgent. There’s more time for horror specials like Hush and concept episodes like Superstar and Restless. And the more aimless wandering time there is, the more time spent with Anya and Xander (“Sometimes in my dreams you’re all naked.” “Really, cuz if I’m in the checkout lane at Walmart I’ve had the same one.”), Anya and Giles (“I have a friend who’s coming to town, and and I’d like us to be alone.” “Oh you mean an orgasm friend.” “Yes, that’s exactly the most appalling thing you could have said.”), Anya and Buffy (“Oh you! Go you! You kill the best!”), and Spike with everyone (“Come on! Vampires! Rrrr. Nasty! Let’s annihilate them! For justice and for… for the safety of puppies and Christmas!) When I think of some of my favorite off-beat character moments from Buffy, a very high percentage of them come from this season.

And I liked the finale to the Initiative plot too. Each of the characters’ big changes sort of evolve into major insecurities by year’s end — Giles feels useless, Xander feels aimless, Willow feels oddly judged — and their group hug while rappelling down the Initiative elevator shaft is the perfect note to end such an odd character detour (I also really like Anya’s speech to Xander earlier in the episode). In a way, 4 is kind of the mumblecore indie season. It has some big themes about moral ambiguity and change, but mostly it’s got a lot of talking, sex, parties, extended dream sequences, jobless people, lesbians, and alcohol. And along the way there is plenty of time for the writers and directors to experiment with their product in a relatively free environment. Sometimes those experiments pay off. Sometimes they don’t. But when the gang gets back down to business in season 5, there’s no denying the show has found a really good place.

What Doesn’t Work

Okay, let’s talk about Riley, Adam, and the Initiative. It’s a promising avenue for the story to take; one that addresses a question I’d always had, which is how the military could possibly not know about all the demonic activity going on in the world. Turns out they’re more than aware. They just have no idea what they’re getting themselves into. (I keep re-checking when this season came out to make sure it really was before 2001) I don’t remember if the show ever explains how long the Initiative has been in Sunnydale, but I’d assume they arrived some time after the Mayor’s departure because it seems like he would have been aware of them and vice versa. At least conceptually I like the idea of a military branch that handles demonic activity, as well as the idea of Adam: some merging of human, demon, and machine to create the ultimate being in the universe. They sound like a perfect catalyst for the kind of crazy plot ramp up Buffy had specialized in the previous two seasons

So at least we can agree that most of this material isn’t a bad idea in theory, right? The trouble is in the execution. So let’s ask, “Why The Initiative? Why Riley? Why Adam? Why now?” Well, Buffy is in college so her life and the people around her are changing. She’s also becoming an adult, and that means a more nuanced worldview that allows for moral ambiguity. Anya, Spike, Adam, Oz, Riley — they all possess aspects of both human and demon. Most of their situations are moral grey areas, things Giles has trained Buffy to deal with by asking questions and weighing the facts, and Maggie Walsh has trained her Initiative operatives to ignore by simply following orders. That touches on the issues of humanity and cynicism. It’s no coincidence that Adam is a robot, or that the chip in Riley’s heart keeps him from becoming fully human, or that Spike’s chip is located in his head and makes him less of an animal. It’s all a metaphor for when to accept authority and when to embrace feeling. There’s also the Initiative’s lack of confidence in the heroic notion of a slayer. When Riley says of Buffy, “She’s the truest soul I’ve ever known,” Walsh responds coldly, “Oh no. Spontaneous poetic exclamations. Lord spare me college boys in love.

But remember season 3 when Faith shut everyone out and turned into a homicidal maniac? And remember how vampire Willow and Wesley the dorky watcher and Anya’s alternate dimension all contributed to the idea that there’s a dark and light side to everyone — again in season 3? And remember the season 3 finale where Buffy had to exploit Angel’s animalistic vampire side to get him to bite her to save himself, and how she taunted the Mayor about his love of Faith to lure him into the school where she blew him up? That pretty much covers the whole, “Weighing the situation. Examining moral complexity,” thing. And then for the topic of authority, remember how Buffy left the Watcher’s council because they wouldn’t help Angel because he was a vampire? How Giles was fired because he allowed his human feelings to get in the way of his duty? That kind of covered that whole bit too. In fact, I defy you to tell me one topic that the season 4 main plot addresses that wasn’t covered more successfully one year earlier. I don’t believe it exists.

I could probably dig a bit deeper and find more issues; structural ones, tonal ones, performance ones. Adam disappears from the story a lot and his messiah thing is underdeveloped. Riley seems to fit some second-run romantic lead archetype: the cute blonde guy who is down to earth and sensitive but also fighting for the wrong side; who arrives after the real charismatic love interest leaves for contract reasons and who nobody ever likes. Structurally the plot descends pretty rapidly without ample buildup and Adam’s evil plan isn’t really that terrifying all things considered — I mean, in some ways The Initiative had it coming. Furthermore the whole Initiative plot kind of rides on the audience caring about Buffy and Riley. That might not have been a good idea either. But I think the biggest issue with this season across the board was that it was the first year where Buffy the Vampire Slayer simply didn’t raise the stakes.

Pun effing intended.

Best Episode
Restless

Worst Episode
Beer Bad

Classic Episodes
Pangs
Hush
Who Are You

Nearly Classic
Fear, Itself
Wild at Heart
A New Man
Something Blue
Doomed
This Year’s Girl
Superstar
New Moon Rising
The Yoko Factor
Primeval

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