Binging Buffy: The highs and lows of season 4
With any teen show, the transition out of high school to college (or post-college) is one of the trickiest. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer is no exception. Season 4 started a bit slow as the writers tried to answer the question of: How do we take these characters and put them in a new world with new people but keep the things that worked in previous seasons? It took them a minute to figure it out, two of the biggest examples being the handling of Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Giles (Anthony Head) at the start of the season. Xander not going to college with Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) made including him a challenge, and for most of the season, I just plain missed Giles. The good news is that they did figure out how to bring them all back together by the end of the season, though the fact that Giles' thing became singing all the time made me feel like the writers were still struggling with how to use him outside of his beloved library. (However, Giles being turned into a demon was one of my favorite hours.)
Looking at Buffy herself and her stories, those also needed some warming up, which is very apparent from my early notes, one of which reads, "Buffy got braids!" because that was the most exciting thing. Another note says, "stupid roommate demon," because if we're talking about a slayer going to college, the most obvious story idea is "give her a demon for a roommate." Although I was happy it ended with Buffy and Willow living together. As for Parker (Adam Kaufman), I'll only address that story with what I wrote, which was, "Ugh, Parker."
But as the season gets going, the roller coaster really begins. The caveman episode? I'll be honest, at first I thought the idea of beer turning people into cavemen was kind of brilliant. But then it kept going and I regretted ever having that thought. (Also, why does cavewoman Buffy have better hair than everyday Buffy?) But then we'd get something like "Fear, Itself," the amazing haunted house hour. Other notable highs and lows include the return of Faith (Eliza Dushku), which I don't think I needed, the Jonathan (Danny Strong) episode, which was fun but also kind of felt like the writers just needed to fill an episode, and then, of course, there's "Hush."
Full disclosure, "Hush" was the one hour of Buffy I'd seen before starting this binge. A friend showed it to me a few years back, so I was well aware of how great it was. But seeing it in context allowed for a greater appreciation of the episode, both of the individual jokes and moments of the hour but also for the creativity and courage necessary to take a show that relies so heavily on witty banter and great dialogue… to go without it. The idea was brilliant, the execution was incredible. That hour is Buffy as its best.
BUT. Again, we have to talk about a creepy sex twist in this season, because there is an episode where Buffy and Riley's (Marc Blucas) sex drive straight-up powers a poltergeist! Buffy spends the entire episode having sex while other teens keep touching this wall because it gives them an orgasm?! Why, why does every season need a creepy sex thing? I'd really like an answer.
Overall, season 4's highs put it above season 3 for me, making it my second-favorite season, behind season 2. (Season 1 remains the lowest.) However, individual episodes aside, this season's greatest struggle is what I've now deemed the series' greatest struggle, and that's finding compelling, threatening big bads. Season 2 is great because the big bad is Angel and the stakes are built in. To quote my notes again, upon meeting Adam (George Hertzberg) I wrote, "Oh good, a Frankenstein." It never felt like the Initiative and Adam built to any sort of massive conclusion, and quite frankly, he was never much of a threat. The "Hush" dudes were definitely more of a threat, imagine if they'd been a season-long villain!!
Also, this season's ranking went down a few pegs when I watched that finale. I've watched a lot of television, and a lot of very weird television, in my life and I can say, without a doubt, that that was the weirdest hour of television I've ever watched. I kept waiting for it to all come together to some massive payoff, and instead, when it ended, I actually screamed "WHAT?!" and scared my mother, who was sitting next to me. The Cheese Man. The first slayer. Buffy's mom saying "A mouse is playing with my knees." Buffy randomly taking a break to do a detoxifying clay face mask. THE CHEESE MAN. It felt like an hour that was weird simply for weird's sake, and I'm actually a little angry that it exists?
Where this season excelled for me was in the crossovers. The Thanksgiving hour of the Buffy-Angel crossover, I thought, was the best episode of the season at that point in my watch, and don't even get me started on the Angel hour. This show really is incredibly cruel when it comes to Buffy and her sex life, but dang it if it doesn't create some good drama. She finally gets to sleep with Angel again — not to mention eat ice cream in bed — and then has to forget it?!?! It. Was. Heartbreaking.
And even though Faith was a big part of the second crossover, I still thought those hours were strong. As for my thoughts on Riley, I feel like one word sums him up: fine. I feel neither intense love nor intense hate toward him, which honestly, is how I think Buffy feels too?
Speaking of romance, I will say Willow's story this season was probably the best example of transitioning a character from high school into college. Watching Willow say goodbye to Oz (Seth Green) and meet Tara (Amber Benson) felt seamless.
Now for the superlatives!
Best Anya line (while doing standup comedy): "Quiet! You'll miss the humorous conclusion!"
Best Spike line: "I get why the demons all fall in line with you. You're like Tony Robbins if he was a big, scary, Frankenstein-looking — you're exactly like Tony Robbins."
Episode I'd least like to live inside: The finale, obviously. I'm not a cheese person.
Favorite episode: I know I should say "Hush" and I would if the question was "best episode," but it's favorite, so I'm going with that first Angel crossover (and technically the Angel hour). The cruelty factor aside, it was so lovely to see them finally get to have a normal day together.