By Jason Henderson
Season 4 of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer was nothing if not daring, in as much as the season tweaked nearly every basic concept of the show's past three seasons, for no other reason than that the story seemed to call for it. The theme of the season was change, as the characters left the confines of High School and found themselves growing into new roles in and around the fictitious University of California, Sunnydale.
Fans of the show found themselves deeply uncomfortable with many of the results: Buffy, like most freshman, dallied with piggish senior guys before landing in the arms of the apparently completely normal Riley. (He turned out to be a government agent, but still pretty normal.)
Xander, unable to go to college, grappled with the distance that came from his friends passing him by as he tread water in one meaningless job after another. But Xander had grown up, no longer the geek of Season 1, and had a new and fairly happy relationship with Anya, the quirky former vengeance demon.
Giles, now a retired librarian, wallowed in self-pity until he started singing at coffee shops. Spike the vampire became a regular, almost a pet because of his "neutering" at the hands of government agency The Initiative. But he never really became a good guy, lacking as he did a soul.
Willow went through the broadest changes, suffering unbearable pain when Oz the werewolf cheated on her, slew his paramour and ran off. She landed in one of the sweetest, most innocent romances ever, with a young woman, Tara, a character created apparently to be "Willow, only somehow even more pensive and shy." Newcomer Amber Benson played Tara as a wallflower with a secret and the ability to see great magical promise in Willow. Rail-thin Benson wasn't helped much, though, by the unflattering "soft" clothing the show put her in. The whole relationship was so sweet it should have been filmed through gauze.
With all the changes for the individual characters, a major side effect was the imminent dissolution of one of
It was also a season for broad experimentation with the television medium itself-- the sort of concept-warping that critics cite as what sets apart the great shows like MASH and Homicide. So, in order of appearance (because I can't bring myself to rank them) here are my votes for the best five episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 4.
This is the kind of episode a series almost has to be a few seasons in to try. In "Hush," a quartet called "The Gentlemen" comes calling on Sunnydale to prey on the innocent. They cast a spell on the city, taking away everyone's voice. Definitely an episode you had to watch, "Hush" relied on sound effects and the utter silence of the characters for tension without abandoning the usual humor. It was an ambitious attempt and it succeeded nicely, as the characters turned to hand gestures, message boards, voice
modulators, and overhead projectors to take the place of everyday vocal communication.
The concept played out beautifully, with the whole town panicking, the State cordoning off the city, and the Gentlemen rolling through the silent streets, floating a foot off the ground. They even came with their own creepy nursery rhyme. This was also the episode that introduced Tara, the painfully shy fellow Wiccan who would soon become Willow's new love, and who recognized Willow as a more powerful witch than we suspected. "Hush" is an episode that stretched the boundaries of TV.
"This Years' Girl/ Who Are You"
Two episodes, actually, but I'm including them as one story. "This Year's Girl" brought the return of Eliza Dushku as Faith, who had been lying in a coma since Buffy nearly killed her last season. While most of us hoped that Faith would return a changed woman, instead she came back even more vicious than before. In yet another experiment of the season, "Who Are You" had Faith receive a posthumous gift from her dead father figure, The Mayor, that allowed Faith and Buffy to switch bodies. The result was a well-executed romp: Sara Michelle Gellar gave us her Eliza Dushku impression, all sashays and hair-flicks, while Eliza Dushku gave a brilliantly deadpan Sara Michelle Gellar impression. But rather than playing for pure comedy, the episode instead showed Faith go from hating and mocking the Slayer to coming to admire her and despise herself. In the end, rather than escape with Buffy's body, Faith turns back to save a church full of hostages, "because it's what Buffy would do." The character of Faith has been one of the most interesting of the series, and it was wonderful to see the character grapple with what it is to be a hero, and find herself unable to deny the hero's power.
Then, for something completely different, the series took a weird breather with "Superstar," a comedy episode in which the whole world revolves around Jonathan, the poor slob who was so depressed he tried to kill himself in the much-discussed "Earshot." What a trip this episode was, from the revamped opening credits to reflect the coolness that is Jonathan, to the jazzy guitar and orchestra a la Monty Norman's James Bond theme that plays whenever Jonathan swings into action. There's a risk any show takes when they dare to play the "alternate world" card, but I tend to enjoy them more often than not. Buffy has done it before, of course, notably in the episode with the alternate Buffy who never came to the Hellmouth. This episode was more like something out of Star Trek, in which more sensitive characters become aware of the oddness of their own reality and have to convince the rest of the cast of what surely must be a strange instinct. Actually, it's always amused me that genre is the one place where existentialists can turn out to be empirically right.
"New Moon Rising"
Seth Green, now a movie star, returned as Oz, the reluctant werewolf, who claims he has finally gotten his lycanthropy under control. Not enough under control that he can handle it when he smells Willow's scent all over new girlfriend Tara's sweater, though. In "New Moon Rising," Green showed us a young man desperate to get his anger under control, and in the end, unable to do so. In other news, this was the episode in which Willow finally came out to her friends, including Buffy, who didn't immediately take it as well as one would hope.
Finally, "Primeval" brought the whole season full circle, successfully closing the gap that had developed between Buffy and her friends. The whole premise of Buffy, thus far, has been that even an iconoclastic Slayer makes a better warrior if she has a community to fall back on. But this season consistently put that notion to the test, as the Scooby Gang strained its edges and began to grow apart. In "Primeval," Buffy's past reliance on her friends turns out to be right. Here, the Gang gathers to cast a spell, calling on the spirit of the First Slayer to cast an amalgam of all of their abilities in Buffy's body. As a result, Buffy is able to defeat the demonic cyborg Adam-- with Matrix style magic flying kicks, no less. Really the season finale (although there remained one more episode, the eery and wonderful Coda), "Primeval" dispensed with almost every subplot developed through the season. The Initiative, the SHIELD-like underground commando force, was almost completely destroyed in an all-out war started by Adam and his army of demons. Considering the budgetary demands for such a thing, the final battle was as convincing as Buffy's four-in-one-on-one with Adam was satisfying. With the final scene, the government pulled the plug on the Initiative, leaving us back where we started: with Buffy and her Gang (and the added ex-agent Riley) as the rightful guardians of Sunnydale.