Rollback Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 4

This time we take a look at the often unpopular Season Four, and why it's not as bad as some would have you believe.

And thus, a new era began.

Buffy Season Four is a controversial Season amongst fans. To put it simply – it’s not the favourite for many. This was a bit of an interesting year for the show – for one thing, it lost two of its principle cast members to a newly launched spin-off, the familiar high school location was no more and the characters were officially adults. Times were moving on for Buffy, and the things that we had gotten used to were going to have to change.

Thus, the show moved onto the life of a Slayer at College, and the adventures that ensued. Adventures that are a little, well, daft at times. Don’t get me wrong – Season Four is by no means a failure, and does hit some serious heights on occasion. If anything, it lacks the consistency of Season Three and the brilliance of Season Two.  It is, however, still a pretty damn entertaining treat. And when it gets it right – it does so beautifully.

So, let’s take a look at the rather hit and miss Season Four.

The Plot 

It’s new beginnings for Buffy (Sarah Michelle Geller), Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Oz (Seth Green) as the three start up at UC Sunnydale, ready to get fully stuck into the University life. Things are less great for Xander (Nicolas Brendon), who’s been driven to living in his parent’s basement, and Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), who no longer has his job as a librarian or a Watcher. However, the gang are soon thrust back into action when it turns out Sunnydale’s College is just as weird as its high school. And that there’s a secret Government organisation on campus, busy capturing Demons and Vampires and experimenting on them. A group of soldiers who, coincidentally, have managed to get their hands on Spike (James Marsters), rendering him utterly harmless by putting a behavioural chip in his head. A gang of highly trained agents, led by Buffy’s new love interest for the year, Riley (Marc Blucas).

Riley’s bunch, named the Initiative, are ran by one of Buffy’s lecturers, Maggie Walsh (Lindsay Crouse), who, it turns out, has some rather nasty intentions of her own. Even as Buffy and Riley are drawn closer together, eventually entering into a relationship despite both of them having their misgivings, Walsh is busy putting her plans into action. Which, as it happens, is creating a Demon/human hybrid army to take control of the world, to be overseen by a super humanoid creature designed by Walsh, known as Adam (George Hertzberg). Trouble is, Walsh has done a little bit too much of a good job with Adam, and he ends up killing her and deciding to run things himself.

Possessing superior intelligence, and being too strong for even Buffy to fight, Adam poses a serious threat to the Scoobies, at a time when the gang are starting to really drift apart more and more. With Riley’s loyalties torn between Buffy and the Government, Spike being utterly driven to do anything he can to get the chip out of his head, and the Scoobies on the verge of falling out for good, Buffy must try and rally her friends together to defeat a threat created by science. Before he raises a zombie army and destroys the world.


From the outside, it’s clear that Season Four isn’t quite as strong as its predecessor, and it’s certainly nowhere near as good as the Season that was to follow it (more on that little gem later). Indeed, one of the many issues with it can be summed up with the whole Initiative plot. The idea itself is great, and the execution is pretty damn impressive at times. Lindsay Crouse is brilliant as Maggie Walsh, the fiercely intelligent, no-nonsense boss of the whole situation, who’s maybe just a little bit obsessed with her golden boy Riley. It’s when she’s pretty disappointingly killed off, about half way through the Season, that things kind of take a nose dive.

It’s not that Adam is a bad villain. He’s actually pretty damn creepy, and Hertzberg does a fine job at making him a nice mixture of both scary and inquisitive. The problem, rather surprisingly, is how he’s written. He doesn’t really do anything. His introduction is intriguing and explosive, but apart from that he kind of slinks off until the Season Final, with his only goal seeming to be finishing the job that Walsh started. You can’t help but lament upon the loss of Walsh, and wonder how much more effective this story-line could have been if Adam had purely been her servant. An unstoppable foe she could pit against Buffy whilst she was busy making shit happen behind the scenes.

In fact, outside of Riley, there’s not really much else to say about the Initiative. The plot of the Government meddling in things they really have no control over, and it blowing up in their faces, has really been done to absolute death in most mediums. It’s actually just a little bit unoriginal, which is surprising considering how Buffy usually goes against the expected so well. Government agents experimenting on monsters? Seen it. Monsters breaking free and killing everyone? Seen it. Soldiers not listening when someone who actually knows what she’s on about (Buffy) tells them that they’re a bunch of idiots. Seen it.

I have to admit, though, some bits of it are pretty cool. The actual set for the Initiative looks gorgeous. It’s a nice revelation that Buffy’s crew and the Watcher’s Council are far from the only people in the world who know about, and fight, the forces of darkness (even if Angel the series is currently busy painting an entirely different picture as Season Four goes on, but more on that later). It’s also a nice addition to Season Four’s main theme of new. New technology to fight Demons. New life experiences to change you. And new developments to the Buffyverse mythology.

Which brings me, nicely, onto Riley. Poor, poor Riley. It was never going to be easy following Angel (David Boreanaz) as Buffy’s love interest, and it’s clear from the start that their relationship is not necessarily the best thing for both characters. But I’ve never really had much of an issue with Riley – because that’s the whole fricking point of their relationship! See, young Buffy of Season One fell for Angel, and it mentally broke her in Season Two. This, coupled with her power, makes it extremely difficult for her to form new relationships, especially with someone who’s, well, normal. And that’s the main problem for Buffy and Riley. He’s just a normal guy. Sure, he’s a highly skilled fighter, with a pretty kick-ass job, but he’s still a bloke. A genuine, good guy, who has fallen for Buffy. And Buffy, for her part, thinks she’s fallen for him.

That’s not to say that Riley is perfect. His main flaw is his inferiority complex when it comes to Buffy. Used to being the one in control, the one who has the strength, Riley seriously struggles with the idea that Buffy is not only stronger than him, but considerably stronger. This constant insecurity is something that is there from day one, and it’s something that allows both Maggie Walsh, and later Adam, to get under his skin. And, unfortunately, Buffy does little to help him with this. It’s not something she can really understand, and its certainly not something she can accept. But, for now, she’s having a bloody good time being with an ordinary bloke she doesn’t have to worry about making too happy. And that’s all she needs to know for the time being.

In fact, if there’s one positive that can be laid at the feet of Season Four, it’s that Buffy is, well, happy. Things are never really this great for her again, nor have they been this good. College, and Angel’s decision to let her be, gives Buffy a new lease on life that she hadn’t really had the chance to experience before. Buffy gets so caught up in Riley, and all the new developments, that she does start to seriously neglect her friends. Which brings me to another thing that Season Four successfully highlights – how close associates can start to drift apart as they enter young adulthood, and how relationships can easily be broken.

Enter Willow. Wow, is this an intriguing Season for her. At its start, she’s still very much in love with Oz and eager to begin her new life at College, to let it “spurt its knowledge into her.” However, when her relationship with Oz suddenly ends, she instead finds solace in an entirely unexpected area. Not with another man, but with a woman. Tara (Amber Benson), is such a lovely partner for Willow. A meek, shy girl who doesn’t really have any confidence in herself (which we find out is due to her abusive family later on), Willow is drawn towards this strange, new relationship whilst Buffy is off with Riley, opening doors that she never even thought existed. A fellow witch, Tara represents something separate from the Scoobies, something that she ends up loving.

So, with Willow essentially turning gay, what part is there left for Oz to play? Well, he’s off after six episodes. According to behind the scenes reports, Seth Green wanted to go into movies, thus Oz had to be written out pretty damn quickly (and was actually meant to be around a lot longer). Oz decides that the wolf part of him is too dangerous to be around Willow, and even when he finds himself half a cure, it’s not safe enough for him to stay. Thus, Oz leaves for good, leaving Willow free to be with Tara. It is sad to see him go, but alas, go he does.

So, Buffy’s off hanging out with soldier boy, and Willow is off discovering something very new about herself. Xander? Well, first he works in a bar. Then, he gets a job at Starbucks. Then, he’s a construction worker (and ends up getting mystically infected with syphilis).  In short – Xander no longer has any direction. He’s the perfect example of a young man in his late teens/early twenties, who’s found himself with no prospects now High School is over. Indeed, there is a bit of a naggling feeling that the writers are not really sure what to do with him either, despite him still having some pretty hilarious moments. At least, that is, until Anya (Emma Caulfield) comes along. The former Vengeance Demon, forced to remain in human form following the events of The Wish last year, Anya has no idea how to integrate into normal, human life – and has fallen completely in love with Xander. At first, Xander finds her a bit of an annoyance, but then starts to return the feeling. It’s yet another thing that drives the Scoobies apart, as Xander spends most of his time with Anya, and watching their amusing relationship develop is always a treat.

Talking of a general lack of direction, there’s Giles. With no job at all to focus on, the poor bloke is literally left skulking around his flat, which kind of becomes the new meeting location for the Scoobies (on the rare occasion they are together this year). Indeed, so down is he about his feeling of uselessness that he even allows himself to be tricked into being turned into a Demon by his old pal Ethan (Robin Sachs). Unfortunately, there really isn’t much else to write about Giles here, and indeed, his lack of confidence that he’s of any use even turns him to drink at one point. He’s still around to tell us what’s going on, and he’s still an essential presence to Buffy. It’s just a shame she doesn’t let him know about it enough.

But by far and away the best of the cast has simply got to be Spike. This year, he joins the main cast as a series regular, and the show is improved about 1000% by his presence. He’s just so damn funny. Made utterly helpless by the behavioural chip in his head, Spike has no choice but to live with the Scoobies, unable to hurt them, or defend himself from any human attack. The good news is that this only counts towards people – he can still kick some serious Demon or Vampire ass if he wants to. Seeing Spike as first a captive, then an amusing, regular foil to Buffy and the group, is simply a treat. He’s not quite an ally to the gang just yet, but that’s all to come.

Worst Episode

Fans of the show no doubt expect me to list Where the Wild Things Are as the worst episode here. Indeed, there are many that view that 42 minutes as the lowest point of the entire show (even lower than I Robot, You Jane). And yes, Buffy and Riley’s continued bedroom antics summoning some sort of evil house thing might suck a little bit – but I admit myself to be rather entertained by this episode. Anya and Spike (as is going to often be the case going forward) steal the show, being delightfully entertaining, and it’s – well, it’s not as bad as the actual worst episode.

Let me be frank. If an episode, or Season of TV, has a good lesson to teach alongside a strong, well written piece of entertainment, I consider it to be a fantastic work of art. Hell, Seasons Two and Three of Buffy do this beautifully – Evil Angel is the perfect example of being careful who you lose yourself in, and Season Three is littered with the idea that actions have consequences, no matter how powerful you think you are. But when you construct something literally to preach an opinion, and poorly I might add, it just ends up rubbing people up the wrong way. Which is exactly what Beer Bad does for me.

Literally the entire message of the episode seems to be “Beer bad, no drink!” as opposed to “Beer can be bad. Drink responsibly,” which is what it absolutely should have been. Everything about this episode just sucks, from the stupid cavemen to the god awful Buffy as a cavewoman – hell, I think the only redeeming part is Willow putting uber douche Parker (Adam Kaufman) in his place. Sorry guys, but this episode seriously, seriously sucks.

Best Episodes 

As said above, when Season Four hits, it hits beautifully. And man does this Season have some good episodes.

In fifth place, we have The Yoko Factor. As Adam starts to put his final plans into motion, Angel blows into town following events on his own show (which I’ll get around to talking about soon), and ends up sparring with Riley, who’s just had a history lesson on Angel and is a tad miffed. Not only does this episode feature a pretty awesome fight scene (in which Riley manages to hold his own pretty well against Angel – okay, he gets his ass kicked, but it’s still better than most could have done), it also shows us how far the Scoobies have drifted apart, making it easier for Spike (who has temporarily aligned himself with Adam), to start to tear them apart.

Fourth, This Year’s Girl. The episode in which she returns! Faith (Eliza Dushku) wakes up from her coma, in a serious bad mood, just as Buffy is busy worrying about Adam. As everyone starts to really get a bit freaked out by this, Faith goes on a rampage, kidnapping Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) and bating Buffy into a final showdown. Faith, however, possesses a little object left for her by the dead Mayor (Harry Groener), which leads me to –

Third place – Who Are You. Following on from This Year’s Girl, Faith has successfully swapped bodies with Buffy. Whilst she has a blast messing up Buffy’s life (including bedding Riley), Buffy finds herself in the clutches of the Watcher’s Council’s baddest agents, sent to bring Faith back to England to face justice. As Buffy, Faith starts to realise just how messed up she is, and truly starts to hate being herself. Although the Scoobies reverse the spell, Faith manages to get away, more confused and angry than ever. Which carries over nicely onto Angel the series. Something I’ll cover next time.

Second place is a difficult one, because frankly both of these top two are amazing, unique, and examples of Buffy at its very finest. However, I have to pick, so this spot belongs to the Season Final, Restless. After defeating Adam, the gang decide to take a night off, and all fall asleep in front of the TV. What we then see is four separate sets of dream sequences from the perspectives of Buffy, Xander, Willow and Giles. Intriguing, amusing and just filled with foreshadowing with what was to come in the remaining three Seasons – this episode is pretty much a masterpiece. And proves that Joss Whedon knew exactly where he wanted to take the story from the beginning.

In first place, and with no surprise – it’s got to be Hush. I mean, man. It’s not often monsters creep me out, but if anything comes close, it’s the Gentlemen. After stealing all of Sunnydale’s voices, so nobody can cry out, the Gentlemen precede to invade people’s bedrooms in the middle of the night, and steal hearts. With an incredibly scary score, some truly haunting visuals of these rather terrifying creatures and some nice move forward in the overall Season arc, this episode is truly a marvel. They manage to take away the voices of the entire cast, and still pull off some incredible writing and performances. Bravo, Buffy. It doesn’t get better than this.

Final Verdict

So, in all, Season Four may have the Initiative arc. It may feature the rather marmite character of Riley. It may contain some truly woeful episodes (Beer Bad – screw you to hell and back). But you know what? I always have a damn good time with Season Four. It’s hilarious, it’s entertaining as hell, it has an abundance of Spike, Buffy is actually happy for once – hell, it’s really not as bad as many would have you believe. And by “bad” I only mean in comparison to other Buffyverse Seasons, because it’s still head and shoulders above everything else on TV.

When Season Four succeeds, it does so beautifully. Hush is one of the most popular episodes in the entire run, and it’s easy to see why. Faith’s return is just as explosive as you would want. There’s even a few cross-overs with Angel, something I’ll cover in more detail when I talk about Angel Season One. It may not be as good as some of the other Seasons, but it could have been a lot worse.

Join me next time as I look at Angel Season One. A lone Vampire, in a big city.

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