Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Four

If you'll allow me to paint with a broad brush, I'd characterize Buffy the Vampire Slayer's evolution something like this: after the interesting but flawed first season, the second was a tightly plotted and gripping endeavor, where a relentless plot, driven by a brilliant villain, was underscored and aided by moments of character revelation. The next and third season, meanwhile, was less plot focused, instead allowing the characters, and their interaction and growth, to shape the story. When the main story gets started it's lackluster, but even that's nothing compared to how it takes nearly half the season to jerk into its sorry excuse for motion. The first nine episodes, and a fair few later ones, are concentrated filler, devoid of real character or plot growth, farce only made somewhat passable by witty dialogue. [A warning: SPOILERS follow.]

Looking back, I think the pattern for season openers is rather clear, now: Buffy is in a bad place psychologically, and, by the episode's end, she's pretty much reverted to normal. This worked brilliantly in Anne, the opener of last season, but is, here, rather less successful. In The Freshman, she needs to adjust to college life and the freedom that it offers after being beaten up by a big, bad, super scary collegiate vampire. Once she decides, eh, it'll still probably die if she stakes it, she's good to go, and we're off. Ish.

Character growth?
One of the biggest, or at least earliest, changes between this and earlier seasons is the setting. Buffy and pals have now graduated high school, and, as the first episode – The Freshman – shows us, they're now off to college. But Buffy never becomes a show about college in the way that it used to be a show about high school. Classes are rarely shown, little of the campus is particularly interacted with, and nigh no attempts are made to really bring the overall place to life. About all this, Spike at one point says: You know how it is with kids. They go off to college, they grow apart. Way of the world. This is, of course, a dark thing that must be fought against and all, but, really, it's quite true. Deprived of the established location and feel of its prior sets – both due to moving on in the world and to them having been blown to hell at the end of Graduation Day – the show feels in some ways without a center, something certainly exacerbated by Xander and Giles, neither of which are attending the school, the latter for obvious reasons. They spend the season trying to prove their continuing relevance and largely failing. Giles drinks, is amusing, and is superfluous; Xander goes from odd job to odd job, hangs out with Anya, and develops no life at all outside of his old friends who have, as he notes, rather left him behind. 

Willow, meanwhile, has by far the most, and maybe even the only wholly, effective long term arc of the season. For the first time since season two, Oz must face the consequences of his lycanthropy, but things, expressed through his growing fascination for both the wild and for fellow werewolf Veruca (Paige Moss)), aren't so easy to solve this time. Without ever breaking his trademark stoicism, Oz realizes he's no longer able to so easily continue being the man he once was with the beast inside him raging, and he departs. Soon after, Amber Benson's Tara comes into the picture, a witch on or beyond Willow's level. More importantly, the chemistry between the two is fantastic. All of which sets up one of the season's most tragic, yet perfectly understandable moments: when Oz returns, later, and finds that, though he's managed to reclaim who he once was, everyone else has moved on.

Most Buffy episodes, and all of the best, straddle the line between humor and drama, making us laugh and also making us care. Most of season four's earlier episodes, on the other hand, fall right off the line and land smack in comedy, earning some fair laughs but possessing nigh no staying power. Beer Bad, in which we learn that alcohol of all varieties turns men in to cavemen, is likely the clearest example of this. It's also not the only one to try the moralizing game, and it's not the only one to fail. Pangs is about the rise of a Native American spirit determined to avenge the wrongs done to his people. The episode focuses on the morality of even opposing such a force. As Willow says: Thanksgiving isn't a-about blending of two cultures. It's about one culture wiping out another! And then they make animated specials about the part where... w-with the maize and th-the big, big belt buckles. They don't show you the next scene, where... where all the bison die, and Squanto takes a musketball in the stomach! (Pangs) All well stated and all, and I'm certainly not going to say the Native Americans deserved smallpox or anything like that, but equating a battle against the spirit with the trail of tears is absolutely idiotic. Want to know the difference? It's rather simple. The Native American in question here is dead. There is no longer a peaceful reconciliation. This is not a question of how to treat a people, but rather of whether it's the duty of all Sunnydale citizens to die at the hands of a corpse for crimes committed by their distant ancestors. Forgive me if I'm not all that conflicted.

As usual, there are some magic-focused episodes, and, as usual, they're amusing as hell and have the aftereffect of making everything a damn sight and a half less believable and consistent for episodes uncountable to come. Something Blue's here the main example of this, though Superstar certainly fits the archetype. Something Blue shows Willow accidentally wreaking havoc with a spell gone wrong. But, while the idea of Buffy and Spike getting married is a damn amusing one, this episode faces the same problem as a lot of the show's more magic focused episodes, namely that it entirely breaks… well, everything. If Willow can cast a spell to make her every whim reality, why've the gang yet to resurrect their foreign allies, slay their enemies, and wished for boatfuls of cash to boot?

The main plot of season four has a ton of potential, at least on paper. It addresses one of the aspects of Buffy I've always found lacking, namely the rest of the world's reaction to the whole vampire thing. Well, here, the government gets in on the game with the Initiative, a force of commandos posing as college students (…because) that capture and experiment on vampires and the night's other assorted beasties. The organization's two aspects are summed up in two characters (each of which ends up passing that torch along, but more on that in a bit). First there's Marc Blucas' Riley Finn, a soldier who exemplifies the dependable soldier archetype, determined to do good and sure he's doing it. Then there's everyone's favorite mad scientist, anything to get the job done figure, here Lindsay Crouse's Maggie Walsh, played cool and disapproving throughout.

Buffy, of course, comes in contact with the Initiative (or, well, she does after spending half a season doing nothing much), and she does so through Riley, who she begins to date, not knowing his penchant for night time camo and morning pushups. The drama here seems obvious… which is part of why it's so disappointing when it doesn't bother to show up. The Initiative's initial reaction to her being a Slayer is essentially "Oh, huh. That's odd," which is shortly followed by Maggie's decision that killing her would clearly be a good idea. So, alright, we skipped a few steps and most of the subtlety, but we're at least heading interesting places, right? Things are no longer as simple as demons bad, people good, and Buffy might have to face the implications of…

Moral complexity?
Oh, wait, never mind. That's not how it happens at all. Actually, Maggie Walsh is quickly bumped off by the fruits of her mad science, George Hertzberg's Adam, who is a Frankenstein/Prometheus character desirous of understanding and transcending the boundaries of mortality. He's not a bad character, even if he is a familiar one, and his detached musings do make a decent combination with his strength, but he's a simple character and turns it all into a simple situation. In the past, Whedon's proven a master of twisting the situation so that he can approach complex themes through simple metaphors, but here, having Adam signify everything that's bad about the Initiative in a nicely killable and demonic form deprives the set up of all its interesting parts. With its dangerous element gone, the Initiative – now sans Riley, who's been forced to question everything he's held dear in the one somewhat effective part of all this – bumbles around, irrelevant except when it wanders into the way of someone more important.

One of the side effects of all this is Spike, who's captured by the Initiative towards the beginning of the season. He escapes, but not before they put a chip in his head, and he finds himself suddenly unable to harm any living thing. The initial scenes of this are hilarious, with Spike attacking Willow, finding himself unable to bite her, and her then consoling him for a moment (You're being too hard on yourself. Why don't we wait a half an hour and try again? (The Initiative)) before bashing him on the head. All the same, it really does seem for much of the season that his character and magnetism might've been broken in the shift to impotence. He spends his time hanging around in Giles' house and then Xander's basement, doing nothing much at all, and the revelation that he can still hurt demons, though it seems placed to allow him to really join the good guys' side, doesn't end up amounting to much. It's only at the end, when Spike joins into an alliance with Adam, that he gets his agency and drive back, and his scenes again feel like they've a purpose. I love Spike, he's my favorite character by far on the show, but I hope that, if he's going to be staying around long term, he's given more to do in future seasons than wander about in Xander's cast off clothing.

In the end, Buffy defeats Adam, the Initiative is disbanded because demons are too dangerous to try and harness (because everyone knows the government usually gives up on incredible power just because it's dangerous), and things're just about restored. The main plot, though not awful once it gets going, is never that great. Like all the way back in season one, it's the side stories and one offs that here hold the power, chief among them Hush. The idea of a television episode, let alone one of such a wit-driven show as Buffy, being silent save for music for most of its length is a rather iffy one, on paper. In practice, though, it's one of the strongest episodes of the entire show. The villains, the calm and sophisticated looking Gentlemen and their horrifically demented helpers, are fantastic, and, here, the inability to scream heightens the terror immeasurably, casting every space, no matter how wide or populated, as the site of a claustrophobic nightmare.

It's not the only excellent episode, though. Where the Wild Things Are also successfully builds tension, atmosphere, and drama, something perhaps aided by how, with Buffy and Riley (ahem) occupied, the show needs to turn to its other elements. For character moments, though, Faith's two episode return is impossible to top. Over its course, as Buffy and Faith find their places quite literally switched, the two are forced to, to some extent, come to terms with the other. It's a concept that could have devolved into melodrama, but the excellent dialogue (humorous and anything but), tension, and Buffy's anger make it anything but. These episodes are fast moving and hard hitting, resplendent with all the energy, terror, and raw pain that made Faith's demise at the end of the prior season so unforgettable.

Season four's not awful, but it's certainly nowhere near the standards set by its predecessors. The main plot is slow to develop and only adequate when it does, and the side stories often fail spectacularly, leaving us with a show that often feels like it's coasting on its past success and only able to reach higher through its (excellent) dialogue. And then come episodes like the ones just described, and suddenly everything's back in place, and the quality level's as high or higher than it's ever been. Here's to hoping Whedon and co can, next time, keep those highs and, just maybe, find a main plot with a touch more spark…

STANDOUTS: Hush, This Year's Girl/Who Are You?, Where the Wild Things Are


  1. No words for Fear Itself? I thought it was great it how it expanded on the characters and really illustrated where they are at right now, and outlined the challenges they will face in the future, not just of the show, but the entire season.

    Also, no words for the brilliance of Restless? Of course, part of the brilliance of Restless is the way the foreshadowing pays off in the end. It's definitely one to revisit when you've finished the series.

    Season 5 is more tightly plotted, with all the beatiful wit and dialogue you've come to expect. Less standout episodes like Seasons 1 and 4, more coherent seasonal arc like 2 & 3, and it picks up the pace with first episode, which I hope you enjoy for what it is.

  2. I mean entire show, not just season, in relation to Fear Itself.

  3. Wasn't too fond of the main story arc for season four, but as usual there were a few standout single episodes.

  4. I may have to rewatch Fear Itself, as I'll admit that it didn't make the largest impact on me when I saw it the first time. Not bad, mind you, but it didn't stand out to me as a key episode at the time of writing.

    As for Restless, I intentionally didn't mention it, as the resident Buffy fangirl of my viewing group (a few friends that wandered in mid episode and stuck around) has informed me it's the key to everything, ever so I'm doing my best to hold back my "What just happened?" reaction until I know more.

    And I actually finished season five a few days ago (the review's are a fair bit behind my viewing speed) and thought it an immeasurable improvement. I've some things to whine about, of course, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  5. How many Buffy episodes do you watch a night, Nat?

  6. We watch most nights and do one or two episodes, depending on everyone's schedule and all that.