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With Joss Whedon’s place in mainstream pop culture currently on the rise I decided to re-watch his back catalogue and came to a surprising conclusion. Season Four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the most maligned in the show’s run, is not only the show’s best, but also Whedon’s greatest achievement. 

Over the next… I don’t know, many words, I’m going to explain why.

(Side note: This is not a defence of the whole of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is not about converting those out there that saw one or two episodes, or simply heard the title, and wrote it off. This is more for the already converted. For those who like the show, but for whatever ((misguided)) reasons do not care for the forth season. Because of this the column is written as though the reader is already familiar with the show.) 


In the Beginning


From the very beginning the show was about high school. The opening sequence introduces us to Sunnydale High before we even meet a single character. The school is dark and presented in an unsettling manner, the music tense and foreboding. It’s something straight out of a horror movie. A boy and a girl break into the school and nervously venture down its halls. The girl, cute and seemingly helpless, cowers behind the boy and asks if they’re alone. When she’s sure they are she reveals her true self, a vampire, and bites into the boy’s neck. The cute, blonde and helpless girl that dies in every horror movie doesn’t exist in this world. Here, she has fangs. With this one sequence, and without meeting any of the major players, Whedon is telling us all we need to know: expect the unexpected, and that High School is hell.

For the first three years this was the metaphor that guided the plotlines and character arcs. In season one especially the majority of the episodes would take a typical high school experience, be it gang mentality or the pain of being unpopular, and filter it through a genre lens. In the world of Buffy the characters feelings are blown up to the extreme. The unpopular girl, ignored by everyone, actually becomes invisible. It’s playing and inverting both teen drama and horror tropes. A character’s fears, thoughts and feelings take on literal, often monstrous representations to grant the audience a greater understanding of what the character is going through. The strange, weird and wonderful elements were always grounded in something real, in something human to resonate on a personal level. From the very beginning the plot came second to the people. Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, Angel, Cordeilla and Oz were those people. And for the first three seasons we watched them form relationships with one another, struggle with heartbreak and rejection, fight demons both internal and external, rely on each other for strength to do so, and ultimately get through their tumultuous teenage years.   

Each year the show grew more consistent and by Season Three was at its peak, producing an excellent season with only one or two average episodes. The show had a greater handle on itself, what it was saying and how to say it. The quality of the writing was such that the formula felt anything but formulaic, but the show had been doing the same thing for long enough now that the audience thought they had a pretty good idea of what the show was and where it would go. That kind of audience comfort and familiarity can often be the death knell for a show. Things could not remain the same. For the characters to grow and the show to remain exciting it had to evolve. So they blew up the school. Graduation Day Part Two, the Season Three finale, felt very much like a last ever episode, and in many ways it was. School is over. Giles is out of the job. Buffy and Angel are finished. Much of what defined the show had run its course. We say goodbye to the characters as we knew them. There is an exchange between the characters in the episode’s final moments where Oz says “Guys, take a moment to deal with this. We survived.” “It was a hell of a battle.” “Not the battle. High School.” They acknowledge the theme, and in doing so put it to bed, because moving forward it will no longer apply. The show is evolving, it will be about something else, something more. Whedon is interested in pushing his characters in new and exciting directions, and in defying expectations. Being comfortable was never an option. The end of Season Three is the end of an era, the end of the lighter years and the beginning of the darker times to come, and Season Four is the transition period between the two. The year everything changes.


Buffy goes to College


From the moment Season Four begins we, the audience, and Buffy are dropped into the unknown. Buffy is seemingly lost, wandering through the huge, unfamiliar Sunnydale Campus. She is dwarfed by its structures and by the crowd of students rushing past her, all of whom seem to know exactly where they’re going. She is completely out of her element, and in a nice role reversal, Willow is completely in hers. Willow, at this moment, is the cool, confident one, sure of herself and her place in the world. She belongs here, but Buffy couldn’t feel more out of place. Everything is new and Buffy longs for the familiar, she makes a comment about how it’s a shame Giles didn’t get a job as the on campus librarian (something a lesser show may have done), placing him in a role she (and we) feels comfortable with. Instead, Giles is a man of leisure (read: Waster), and his life has come to something of a halt. Xander is also going through a similar problem, as he can’t get his life going. After school he stalled and while his friends have gone onto bigger and better things he has got no further than his parents basement. All of the roles we came to expect the characters to fit into are inverted. In the first three seasons the show played with teen and horror tropes, twisting them to fit into its own universe, but in Season Four the show subverts its own tropes it had established in its first three seasons. To really hammer this home we get Spike, who only two seasons ago was the big bad, a genuine threat. But in Season Four everything must change, so Spike becomes a joke. A neutered dog, all bark and no bite. Over the first three seasons we came to know these characters, and now we must get to know them again, as they themselves must piece together who they are going to be heading forward into their adult lives. That is the overarching theme of the season, of identity, of finding yourself, and that’s what College is, an experiment to do so. So if High School is hell, it’s built on top of a Hellmouth, and if College is an experiment, then it is built on top of a laboratory. The theme and metaphor continue to enrich the audience’s understanding of the characters’ experiences, as well as drive the plot.   

Look at how the themes steer the characters journeys in this season. At S4’s outset Buffy is not only trying to figure out who she is outside of slaying, but also who she is away from Angel. Even when he was her enemy in Season Two he was still a part of her life, still partially defining who she was. But Angel is gone and Buffy is moving on. She meets a boy, Parker, and fools herself into mistaking his lines for intimacy, for a genuine connection. To prove to herself she’s over Angel she rushes into something with Parker, essentially proving the opposite. Their connection isn’t real and once Parker has gotten what he wants, he drops the pretence and drops Buffy. But he doesn’t lose his soul, he doesn’t become some monster embodying Buffy’s grief, much in the way Angel did in a previous season. The show plays it unexpectedly straight. The guy’s just a dick. The Parker hiccup sends Buffy reeling for something familiar and she retreats to Giles and some rose tinted memories of Thanksgiving. Earlier on in the season Buffy attempts to return home only to find her mother has made use of her room. The comfort of home and the embrace of the familiar are no longer possibilities. Buffy, much like the show itself, has to keep moving forward. Going back is not an option. She meets Riley and the two don’t initially make much of an impact on each other. At this point Buffy is still overwhelmed by College life and when introduced to Riley makes only enough of an impression to be remembered as “Willow’s friend”. As things get more serious between them Buffy initially conceals a large part of who she is from him, and it is revealed he is doing the same with her. They are both figuring out who and what they are to each other. By the end of the season Buffy is more aware of the pieces that make her who she is, and in Restless, not allowing one piece, specifically slaying, to define her any more than the other pieces. She is the slayer, she is her friends, she is her responsibilities, she is her strengths and her weakness and she is all of them at once. She is Buffy. And her journey is only just beginning. She will continue to grow and evolve.

Xander and Giles are equally informed by the season’s theme, by the search for identity. In S4 Giles is unsure of himself. He has always been the mentor, the person the rest of the group came to for wisdom and support. At its simplest, he was the “Librarian”, the grownup who always had the answers. But the library is gone and Giles is out of the loop. Buffy no longer comes to him with important news, neglecting to inform him of Riley’s involvement with the commandos, and he feels himself slipping away from the group. In A New Man he becomes the very thing he feared he was, an ancient demon, a relic none of them understand. But as much as he wants to be included, he is unsure about the level of involvement he should have in the lives of the others. How much of his help is actually hindering their further development. So Giles toys with numerous possibilities of who he should be. Should he remain the patriarchal figure to Buffy, in his mind, stunting her growth and rendering her a permanent child, or should he settle down and start a real family? Or should he live out his dream and become a rock star? Xander also tries on numerous roles, trying to find something that fits. He becomes a bartender at the on campus pub, superficially planting himself back into the lives of his friends. He takes numerous jobs, trying to pull himself up and out of the basement, but none of them particularly feel right. He and Giles begin spending more time with each other, researching for Buffy in an attempt to be useful. He even makes use of an old adopted identity, the Army Guy, to help Buffy once more, but screws that up. He can no longer slip into past roles, he must forge a new one. A constant with Xander has been his longing for someone he can truly be with, not just for sex, but an actual connection. As Restless states, he’s not just a conquistador but a comfortador. And comfort for Xander comes from someone unexpected, Anya, a character Xander doesn’t initially understand. He doesn’t know what she is to him, is she his girlfriend, or is her desire for him fleeting? As the season goes on and his insecurities about his friends leaving him behind don’t entirely diminish, he begins to find that his place is with her. 

Of all the characters it is Willow whose arc most obviously ties into the season’s central theme, and it’s her identity that goes through the most dramatic changes. At the beginning of the season Willow is secure in who she is and excited to be starting college with Oz, her on campus boyfriend. In the early years of the show Willow was seen as very much a geek, someone without cool, someone not worthy of noticing. But Oz does notice her, and his cool is unquestionable. He’s sardonic and smart, plus, bonus points, werewolf guitarist. He is a huge bump to Willow’s self-esteem and she feels more comfortable being herself when she’s with him. She feels like more than Buffy’s sidekick. But in College Oz starts noticing another girl. Someone he has a lot in common with. Willow’s cool is threatened. And when Oz does cheat on Willow with this other woman Willow’s sense of self is shattered. After Oz is gone Willow remarks that she’s been split down the centre and half of her is lost, and in a way it is. Willow’s self perceived cool came, largely, from Oz and his status. Even after the breakup, when Percy calls her a nerd her defence is “Hello, dating a guitarist… or was.” Oz was the proof, both to the world and herself that she was more than just a nerd, but with him gone she fears she is nothing more than the tragically unhip girl of Season One again. So she turns to another facet of her self she considers defining: magic, and begins expanding this aspect of her identity. It’s through this expansion of self she meets Tara, and a touching, heartfelt relationship starts up between the two of them. It quickly becomes apparent why Willow needs her. With Oz, Willow was the “groupie”, she had hitched her wagon to his star, but with Tara the roles are reversed. Tara sees Willow for how she wants to be seen. In Tara’s eyes Willow is powerful and cool. She is the dominant figure in the relationship. Whereas Oz had been slightly closed, and the werewolf in him embodying volatility under the surface, Tara is open, warm and a calming influence. In Tara she finds shelter, a safe place to be herself. Like Xander, Willow finds her place in another person. She lives through Tara’s gaze, becoming who she wants to be.  


For all its audacious storytelling choices, the fans didn’t connect with Season Four the way they did with many of the other seasons. Season Four’s perceived problems are often deemed to be The Initiative, Adam, and Riley. Two of these are plot issues. The Initiative and Adam are the big bad of Season Four, and are perhaps its least compelling aspects. But they aren’t what the season is about. They simply give the character’s journeys some context. Throughout the season the central characters are drifting apart, finding themselves individually before remembering who they are together. The Initiative and Adam give them the reason to reunite, to galvanise the group into working as one (which they literally do. The characters merge, becoming one entity, as they are stronger together). Even the season’s “problems” still feed into the metaphor. The Initiative is one large experiment, just like College, and Season Four itself. Adam is a creature that has been pieced together from various sources and is trying to find his place in the world. He’s the walking, talking embodiment of the central character’s quest. They make sense in the grand scheme of the season and therefore earn their place. The fans problem with Riley seems to be twofold. The first is an issue with the actor’s performance, which seems unfair, especially as David Boreanaz was hardly knocking it out of the park back in Season One. The other is that Riley is slightly dull and isn’t right for Buffy. But is that not the point? In Riley Buffy is trying to find something normal, something safe, comfortable, and yes, even a little dull. She finds this in Riley but not the necessary spark to make it work. Fans seemed to take this as a failing on the character’s part. The character isn’t as engaging as many of the others that populate the show, but he works within the confines of the season. Like Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles and Adam, Riley is also trying to figure out who he is, once his life in The Initiative is called into question. His presence enriches Buffy’s story, even if his own isn’t as engaging. So if these are the weakest elements of the season, they still continue to enhance the more important aspects of the show.  

It’s this that makes Season Four so impressive, that everything is working in unison with the sole purpose of pushing the show forward. It sheds the shackles of the previous three seasons’ status quo and dares to be something different. Which may be why some fans didn’t respond to it, Season Four is the show in flux and that leaves the audience unable to find their footing, unable to get a grasp on where it’s heading. But that’s why it’s so exciting. The whole season, from the new setting, to the characters new directions (or lack of in Xander’s case) is a gamble. It’s risky and fresh, working without a safety net. Whedon really made the most of the opportunity to delve into the characters, to pull them apart, invert their personalities and flesh them out. The characters and the show are out of their element, pulling at the seams of what they are, and it is this that makes Season Four the most enthralling, daring and rewarding in the show’s run. It’s the season that breaks all the rules (just look at Hush and Restless). The inversion of character and trope, and the exploration of metaphor and theme breathe new life into the show, further realising the world. In the first three years the characters became three dimensional, but in Season Four they become real. If it’s the genre splicing, gentle toying of expectations, and superb character work that make Whedon’s work special, then there is no better example than Buffy Season Four. A masterpiece.

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  1. Dan

    While I’d argue that Angel season 5 is Whedon’s greatest achievement, Buffy 4 is undeniably great, inexplicably maligned, and the Buffy season I find myself rewatching most often.

    And you hit the nail on the head: the characters are the reason. Where the characters are at this point in their arcs is so much fun, not to mention so necessary given the seriousness and tragedy just round the corner. Those viewers dismissing season 4 due to Adam and the Initiative are presumably Plot People rather than Character People. Exactly what drew them to a character-centric show like Buffy in the first place is the real mystery.

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