Aug 24, 2010

Buffy The Vampire Slayer - Season 4

Freshman year in UC Sunnydale. Buffy and Willow jump into college life, while Xander must find what his future is, and Giles is struggling with the fact that after quitting the Watchers' Council he no longer has a purpose. But something is brewing under the UC Sunnydale campus - a threat that has nothing to do with the supernatural, and everything to do with governments sticking their noses where they so don't belong.

Season 4 is possibly the weakest of the later Buffy seasons. Its main story-arc is unconvincing and its central villain rings hollow. Where this show is concerned, however, "weakest" means "still pretty damn good", and ironically, one can find here three of the five best episodes in the entire show, as well as some very important character-developments. It is the first major change of scenery for the Scooby gang, as hardly any of the old places from the previous seasons are visited (understandable, considering that Sunnydale High got burned down in Season 3...). The change is welcome, however, because it feels completely natural.

The most important new character of the season is of course Riley Finn (Marc Blucas) - TA in one of the classes that Buffy and Willow attend in UC Sunnydale, but also a part of the secret government military program called The Initiative. The most important aspect of Riley's role however is the fact that he is Buffy's new romantic interest, much to most fans' chagrin. In truth, he is a fantastic character. Completely Joe Avarage (if Joe Avarage was about seven feet tall, with chiseled jaw and athlete's physique of course), nice in an oafish way, stable, understanding, immensely polite, Riley is the very opposite of every other character on this show, and the contrast works beautifully. What does not work beautifully, unfortunately, is his relationship with Buffy. Both actors do their best, but there is just no chemistry. However realistic and wholesome a character Riley is, he never feels more than a place-holder in Buffy's life, and Season 5 actually will solidify that impression.

On the not-so-controversial side we have the return of Spike who becomes a regular member of the cast (or rather - James Marsters does). After some tinkering on the Initiative's part, the most badass vampire in the world is rendered harmless to humans which makes for a lot of hilarity and impotence jokes, as well as giving a chance for all kinds of awesome interaction between him and the Scooby gang. Another guest-star made regular is Emma Caulfield's ex-vengeance demon Anya who becomes involved with Xander. She is an amazing comic relief character, who manages to not get any nuance of tact or politeness in a way that's distinctly her own and makes her not a substitute, but an equal to the missing Cordelia. The last (and - for now - least important) new addition to the cast is Tara (Amber Benson) - Willow's new friend who is also a witch, and perhaps something more.

Season 4 is centered around belonging and growing apart. Xander feels left behind, Willow goes through heavy changes, Buffy is obsessed with her "spanking new boyfriend", while Giles and Joyce feel that they have no purpose in life. And yet, as all those plot-lines converge in the next to last episode (explanations will happen, be at peace), the characters seem to have found a new bond, a symbiosis where everyone plays a part in a greater whole. This is the first season of the show that actually gives foreshadows of what is to follow next. Particularly the last episode - Restless - is big with the hinting, concerning the major plot-line of Season 5, as well as the archetypes characters will become toward the end of the show.

A few episodes merit special mention. Chief among them is Hush - one of the crowning jewels of the entire show. More than half of this episode is done without any dialogue, as a group of fairy-tale demons called the Gentlemen arrive in town and steal everybody's voices so that nobody would be heard screaming while they cut hearts out at night. Heavy on the subtext of communication and the various ways we manage to not understand each other, Hush is also one of the most effective horror-wise, as the grotesque skeletal Gentlemen are truly demonic in a way that nothing else in the entire show has ever come close to. Suffice to say that they float a foot above ground, their broad steel-toothed smiles never drop from their skull-like faces, and their exaggeratedly courteous gestures are chilling to the extreme. All the actors perform wonderfully in this episode, and there is quite a lot of spot-on comedy too. All part of the quirky idiosyncratic experience that is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Who Are You? deals with body-swapping, and gives two important cast-members the opportunity to step into the other one's shoes. Both perform great, and it is a wonderful character-building episode for one of them, but unfortunately I can't say more without ruining the surprise.

Superstar is one of my favorite episodes in the show. Dealing with an awesome "what if?" scenario, it manages to play both comedy and drama, while at the same time giving a completely obscure character - the short looser Jonathan (Danny Strong), introduced in Season 2 - the spotlight to such a ridiculous extent that even the opening is re-cut to feature him there.

Restless is another gorgeous piece of art. The last episode of Season 4 is not a climax, but an epilogue (the ending of the current story-arc happens in episode 21 - Primeval), and it is entirely a dream sequence, or rather - four dream sequences, as Willow, Xander, Giles and Buffy fall into an unnatural sleep in Buffy's house. There is no way to describe the utter wackiness of the episode. Restless is weird and confusing, both alluding to the future and playing with characters' hidden fears.

Willow's dream is a Twin Peaks-esque vision - complete with the heavy red curtains - of all her friends playing roles in a surreal version of Death of a Salesman. Buffy's Chicago outfit with the short black hair and provocative femme-fatale/burlesque dancer dress is especially memorable, as well as her dazzling monologue:

But what else could I expect from a bunch of low-rent, no-account hoodlums like you? Hoodlums, yes, I mean you and your friends, your whole sex. Throw 'em in the sea for all I care. Throw 'em in and wait for the bubbles. Men, with your groping and spitting. All groin, no brain. Three billion of ya' passin' around the same worn out urge. Men... with your sales.

Half of the dialogue in this episode is severely symbolic and/or meaningful, and the other half is complete nonsense. I think it's easy to judge where this particular piece of brilliance falls. However, the Willow sequence shows more than anything else in the season how much she has grown up and matured since the beginning of the show. There is almost nothing in common between the nerdy clutz from Season 1, and the gorgeous self-aware and confident woman that she is in Season 4. Everybody else's dreams hold wicked cool elements, and in each and every one of them is featured the Man With the Cheese (I wear my cheese. It doesn't wear me.) who Whedon admits to have put there purely for absurdity's sake.

In its entirety, Season 4 is a step down in quality from Season 3. However, it holds many pearls of character development, as well as few of the best Buffy episodes ever made. And as much as fans might be bothered by Buffy and Riley's relationship, there is still a lot to love here. Plus - witches. "Sometimes I think about two women doing a spell. And then I do a spell by myself." That is to say, even at its weaker, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is still many laps ahead of most every other show, doing drama better than dramas, comedy better than comedies, and entertainment as art in the best possible way - with a big heart.


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