Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Four
Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Allison Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, Seth Green, James Marsters, Emma Caulfield, and Anthony Stewart Head
All 22 episodes of season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This was the post-Angel and Cordelia era, when Spike, Riley, and Anya gradually became series regulars. The major plotline running through the series focuses on the Initiative, a secret military group devoted to capturing and studying demons for defense purposes.
I hadn’t watched most of these episodes in a while. It’s always interesting (to me, at any rate) to see them in retrospect, knowing what’s going to happen next. This was my reaction, episode by episode.
The Freshman— Buffy is thrown off-kilter by the University experience.
• I had more sympathy for Buffy’s disorientation with her new school. It’s rather like starting a new job, isn’t it? And come to think of it, university threw me off a bit at first, too.
• I had somehow managed to forget that her annoying roomate was named “Cathy.”
• I got to wondering, why don’t more demons try to break Buffy’s arms? (Eww…)
• Giles shows some nifty foreshadowing of his Season 6 behavior, trying to get Buffy to stand on her own two feet, then running to her aid.
• Overall, though, a pretty flat episode.
Living Conditions — Buffy and her new roomate just aren’t getting along.
• Oh, it’s Kathy with a K— that’s a whole different thing. Not my name at all.
• Spot the nifty foreshadowing: Oz and Veracu make serious eye contact. Mysterious commando guys are spotted on campus.
• I always wondered how Buffy and Giles remembered their “it’s tough for an only child to get used to a roomate” conversation after the arrival of Dawn.
Harsh Light of Day—Spike seeks a gem that will make him invulnerable, while Anya tries to get over Xander by having sex with him and Buffy takes it to the next level with Parker.
• The attempted parallelism between the three couples doesn’t quite work here — the Anya/Xander situation really isn’t the same as the other two. Xander did have a legitimate reason not to talk with Anya at that moment, whereas Parker and Spike were just cruel to their partners.
• I’m still not that crazy about the Parker plotline. Why does Buffy have to go through the “everything changes after sex” experience again? Once more, without metaphor.
• Although definitely evil, Spike is kind of sexy here. The lack of shirt and the moments of heat with Harmony are rather helpful in that regard…
• Is Harmony a subconscious substitute for what he really wants: Buffy? Harmony is blonde and the same age as Buffy. She pretends to be Buffy for Spike’s gratification, so…
• More foreshadowing? Parker thinks Buffy and Spike must have been a couple before.
Fear, Itself—A Halloween fake haunted house becomes infected by a real demon feeding on the inhabitants’ fears.
• Best of the season to date. Killer ending, with a useful catch-phrase attached.
• Lots of character exploration and foreshadowing: Buffy’s inability to open her heart to anyone. Oz’s fight with werewolf-ism. Willow resenting being a side-kick, then losing control of her magic (which comes to a head in Season 6).
• Note the complete lack of chemistry between Buffy and Riley.
Beer Bad—A special beer brew reverts Buffy and some college boys to prehistoric development.
• Oh, this wasn’t good—neither the attempt at broad humour nor the too-obvious “metaphor” work.
• I rather liked Buffy in her interim, slow but not yet cave-like state. She was very cute. And I liked Willow’s conversation with Parker—strong Willow is great. But that’s about all I liked.
Wild at Heart — Oz meets up with another werewolf, and realizes he doesn’t have his inner beast as under control as he thought.
• OK, I just have to say that I love Season 4, at-a-loss Giles. You just want to give him a hug.
• This was supposed to be a longer plotline. It got condensed when Seth Green decided to leave the show. Given the strength of this episode, it’s too bad they couldn’t do more with it.
• And again, note Willow’s initial response to Oz’ infidelity: she goes right for the dark magic.
• The ending is a heartbreaker.
The Initiative — Spike is captured by a military group that performs experiments on demons and vampires. Walsh and Riley belong to this “initiative.”
It’s well-established that I like this episode—even the Riley bits! Highlights:
• Giles and Xander bonding over their shared feelings of uselessness.
• The Buffy/Spike subtext: his obsession with her; “hello, gorgeous.”
• Spike’s disturbingly sexy attack on Willow. (Instead of flawed writing, I’m going with the theory that the chip took a while to activate, allowing Spike to fight his way out first.)
• Riley as “teutonic.” Riley punching Parker. (How teutonic.)
But the Initiative people really have to stop referring to Spike as “it.”
Pangs — Buffy tries to cook Thanksgiving dinner while avoiding a Native vengeance demon.
• Willow really seemed wrong this time. You can’t satisfy vengeance. [Maybe the 2020 perspective on this would differ?]
• Buffy is very cute in her desire for the perfect Thanksgiving.
• The whole premise of Angel’s arrival in Sunnydale seems false: Buffy really isn’t in that much more danger than usual. He helped, but they might have managed without him.
• Some very funny lines in this one. All the dialogue works.
Something Blue — Willow does a spell that incidentally does harm to her friends
• I love this one, and I’d never before noticed that it was written by the same person who did Beer Bad! Proves that everyone deserves a second chance.
• Unlike that episode, the characterization seems spot-on in this one, and it hints at the future trouble that Willow is going to have in turning to magic when she loses a loved one.
• Ironically, this is Buffy and Spike at the apex of their happiness together. Still, their arguing here does point out that, even with magic, this relationship will never be simple.
• Shallow alert: Buffy’s hair really doesn’t look good when Riley calls her “beautiful.” (Riley looks pretty cute, though. What up with that?)
Hush — Demons from nursery rhyme remove everyone’s voices
• The much-lauded Hush, the only Buffy ever nominated for a “serious” Emmy (for writing). Is it as good as everyone says? Well, yeah, it is. As with the best of Buffy, both funny and scary.
• The beginning is very enigmatic. “When I kiss you, it will make the sun go down.” Huh? Maybe Joss will explain that in his commentary.
• Cool how Spike is just “let loose” after his “Something Blue” behavior.
• This is the first we see of Tara. She doesn’t develop much personality until Season 6.
Doomed — The gang must save the world against another Apocalypse
• This episode can’t quite match up to the two that preceded it, but it’s a solid effort with some funny moments, especially with Spike.
• The Buffy and Riley scenes are mostly dull, but it does reveal to what extent the Angel relationship has damaged her (a theme that continues throughout the series).
• Buffy’s grabbing the demon that fell into the hole defies the laws of physics.
A New Man — Giles is feeling useless and left out. Then Ethan Rayne turns him into a demon.
• I think Season 4 Giles is my favourite Giles, so I quite enjoy this one. Spike is pretty cool in this, too—note how he muses that he’s surprised the Slayer didn’t come by to see him off. As for Riley, he definitely gets points for admiring Buffy’s strength. But his “I’ll take you down” comment is still a bit creepy.
• Nitpick: Giles as a demon rips through his shirt, but not his pants? I know, I know, TV…
• Question: Is this the point they found out that Lindsay Crouse didn’t want to continue, and had to go a different way with the season?
The I in Team — Buffy gains access to the Initiative, but Slayer ways are not military ways.
• Well, this time around, Buffy’s joining the Initiative didn’t seem as sudden.
• Things that make you go hmm… When hailed by Maggie Walsh, Riley says, “Mother needs us.” Mother?
• Also note: This is where Anya learns about capitalism. Five episodes from now, she’ll be telling Spike she prefers her money where it is. As hers.
• In the Buffy boyfriend sweepstakes: It’s cute how much Riley admires Buffy. But Spike takes off his shirt. I think he wins (even though Buffy didn’t see it).
Goodbye, Iowa — Riley has trouble coping with Walsh’s death and betrayal
• The idea of the guy who’s looked at the world as being black and white having trouble coping with the grays is interesting, but the actuality isn’t as much—partly because I’m not so invested in the Buffy/Riley relationship.
• Spike is very pretty. Also, his comment about Buffy having “bloody tragic taste in men” is particularly delicious, considering what’s to come.
• The scarf thing—too much of a plot device. Doesn’t seem a likely thing for Buffy to wear.
This Year’s Girl — Faith awakens from her coma
• I didn’t enjoy this as much as I expected; perhaps I was just anticipating Part 2 too much. Some notes:
• Cool dreams. Interesting that Faith also has prophetic dreams about Dawn. Sort of bolsters that fan theory that she was created from both Slayers, not just from Buffy.
• The parts with Faith and the Mayor really “pop.” By contrast, the parts with Buffy and Riley seem particularly dull.
• I’d never noticed before how much Faith is projecting when conversing with Joyce…
Who Are You? — Buffy and Faith literally get to walk in each other’s skin
• I’ve watched this one a lot; it’s fun, well-written, and well-acted. Sarah is particularly notable at playing Faith—especially that she sometimes has to play Faith playing Buffy. Eliza doesn’t get as much opportunity to be Buffy, but is fine in the scenes she has.
• Some innuendos that kinky sex = bad, although I think it’s supposed to be meaningless sex that’s bad. (At least it’s clear that Anya and Xander have kinky yet loving sex.)
• And speaking of sex, what about that Willow and Tara “spell,” huh.
Superstar — Somehow, Jonathan is the major hero of the Buffyverse
• Apparently, this is an homage to “Mary Sue” fiction, in which fans write stories in which they insert themselves as “too perfect” characters. At any rate, the attention to detail is quite marvelous—the credits, the posters (Jonathan playing basketball at Riley’s is one of the best)…
• As an aside, if Riley is off the drugs, why is he still having effects in Season 5? Must attempt to follow that plot thread…
• Manages to tie in the Adam plot, as Jonathan explains Adam’s power source. But it’s still bizarre that he suddenly knows so much about that secret operation.
• Spike openly flirts with “Betty”—is this some sort of after-effect of Baith’s coming on to him in “Who Are You”?
• Cute that since Jonathan is everyone’s ideal, for Xander and Anya, it’s all about sex. (They often do gay subtext around Xander, don’t they?)
Where the Wild Things Are — Sexual repression causes badness at Riley’s frat house
• This is just an odd episode. It has some really great bits:
• Spike and Anya bonding over their lost power
• Giles singing “Behind Blue Eyes”
• A rather funny ending
But the theme is both heavy-handed and underdeveloped. Why do Buffy and Riley get caught in this sexual vortex? Because they’re not as open about their sexuality as Anya and Xander are? (Note who finally rescues who here. Also note Xander’s near eye injury.)
New Moon Rising — Oz is back, but Willow isn’t as available as she seems
• This episode made me cry. The Oz and Willow stuff made me cry. The Tara and Willow stuff (which seems much more meaningful now than it did then, when Tara had no personality) made me cry. But many viewers at the time just got angry, and wrote horrible, homophobic letters.
• I have to say I liked Riley in this one, though. Riley the anarchist. Cool. Notice how he carries that mantle of gratuitous shirtless scenes that Angel used to have, and Spike later inherited. Speaking of Angel, Riley finally learns something about him…
Yoko Factor — Spike easily plays on the gang’s insecurities to break them apart
• A Spike-heavy episode is always good. And I have to scratch that theory that I don’t like evil Spike, cause he’s pretty naughty, but I still think he looks great.
• Right! Buffy went to LA. It’s different watching these without the corresponding episodes of Angel.
• And speaking of Angel—once again, his appearance on Buffy makes little sense. Don’t these people watch the other show? How would Angel know what Riley looks like? Why would he attack him? Why would even he even come to apologize, when he was perfectly right to tell Buffy what he did in LA (as she nearly admits)? Whatever. The two of them do look good together, though.
• Drunk Giles! Hee! That is all.
Primeval — The gang unites to defeat Adam
• Not the best of season arc enders, probably because this wasn’t the story they were originally trying to tell. I like the unifying spell, and all the slow-mo stuff, however Matrix-y it is. But the zombie people are kind of weird and ridiculous, and I couldn’t buy Riley fighting so effectively against uber-Forrest right after digging a chip out of his chest. (That whole Riley connection to Adam should have been more interesting than it was, too.)
(Original page had nothing to say about the actual season ender, the dream episode, “Restless”. I no longer remember why.)
Wild at Heart commentary features Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon, and Seth Green. They’re having fun together and frequently veer off-topic, but it’s entertaining, so no big. Nice that there are no hard feelings about Seth’s having left the show so suddenly. Interesting how he says that Oz is the only cool character he’s been allowed to play.
The Initiative commentary is by writer Doug Petrie, who is much better at staying on topic. He’s very complimentary to James Marsters, but I don’t know what he means when he says that Spike wasn’t a good boyfriend to Dru. Some interesting reveals:
- There were concerns that there was too much chemistry between Willow and Riley, so they tried to keep them apart.
- Spike’s attack on Willow was, in part, a response to Internet rumours that Willow was to be killed in Season 4.
- The initiative plotline was influenced by The Prisoner (the TV series), The Matrix, and True Lies.
Hush commentary actually doesn’t explain the opening dream much. I’m also less interested in the details of shots than Joss is. But it is interesting to point out the difficulty of many of the scenes, including simple ones of extras lying in bed, and the clock tower set. You really appreciate the extra effort that had to go in to make this the great episode it was.
Spike This! featurette. Great subject, and James really is very pretty (although notably thinner in Season 6, when the featurette was filmed, than he was in Season 4). James, curiously, doesn’t have the best insight into Spike, however. Saying that, underneath it all, Spike is just eee-vil is an over-simplification.
Hush featurette gives other people’s perspectives on this episode. Chris Beck looks nothing like I expected—more rock’n’roll, less classical.
Sets of Sunnydale featurette provides an overview and tour of various sets, with the set designer. UC Sunnydale is largely based on UCLA.
Inside the Music featurette covers scoring, songs like those sung by Giles during his midlife crisis, and band appearances. It includes an interview with Nerf Herder, who wrote the Buffy theme. They also don’t look like the way I expect—more nerdy.
Oz Revealed: A Full Moon featurette is an overview of Oz’s character up to his departure. Apparently they tried to look at making him recurring rather than regular, since (as Seth points out) Oz is often not pivotal to the plot, and is there just ’cause he’s a regular. But that proved too difficult to work out. Seth first portrayed Oz with large, geeky glasses, but was convinced to get rid of them to seem more cool.
This Year’s Girl commentary actually made me like the episode more. I hadn’t noticed before all the Dad/family imagery, nor the fact that Faith deliberately lures Buffy into a big fight so that she’s on the verge of collapse before switching them.
Superstar commentary points out even more of the little details that made up this unusual episode of Buffy.
Once again, one has to hunt for the special features, sit through animations before the disk starts (though it’s shorter than on some past seasons), and deal with “hanging notes” on the menu pages. I really wish the makers has studied the Queer as Folk DVDs and presented them with the same sort of user-friendly design.