Buffy, the Vampire Slayer – Season 4 (1999-2000)
The day-to-day anxieties of high school have come to a crashing end (literally, as Sunnydale is left in rubble, the remnants of a Graduation Day gone monstrously awry at the end of Season Three) and life’s even greater uncertain turf – including all those questions about who we are, what our futures hold and why every romantic entanglement seems to grow that much more serious – arrive full force.
A few regulars have departed for greener pastures (i.e., larger roles) on the first season of that spin-off series “Angel” (namely, Christina Carpenter’s bubble-headed lead cheerleader Cordelia, Alexis Denisof’s incompetent watcher Wesley Wyndam-Pryce and, of course, the 200 year old vampire himself – Buffy’s greatest love — Angel, played by David Boreanaz, an actor whose goofy unpretentious surface charm doesn’t balance out the fact that he musters up little in the actual dark and brooding department), leaving behind the Scoobies and our favorite vampire slayer Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar, like much of the cast, a limited performer who would normally have inspired only the faintest of interest, yet matched with the perfect role she was simply born to play, jettisoned into a pantheon of iconic TV characters) to fight off not only the usually wild, sometimes comic (like mild-mannered watcher Giles suddenly turned into an unrecognizable hunted creature in “A New Man”), sometimes genuinely frightening (can I get a “Hush”, anyone?) assortment of demons and vampires, but this season’s new Big Bad – that being the sociopathic cyborg Adam, a weapon-of-war experiment gone rogue from the sinister top-secret military installation that created him, The Initiative, operating from a lair directly beneath the UC Sunnydale campus that (an academically struggling) Buffy and Alison Hannigan’s super-smart loveable witch Willow (who stayed behind at the inferior college to support Buffy) are attending.
Assessing this fourth season from the perspective of now having gulped greedily (along with my daughter) from the creative well of all seven seasons of this brilliant, television landscape-changing show (with the plans of soon delving into Buffy creator Joss Whedon’s Season Eight canonical comic book continuation), while still containing more than its share of those impressively wonderful and sensitive observations on life — through means comic, tragic and fantastique — my daughter and I both found the season (perhaps like its characters) struggling a bit to find sure footing post-high school, at least in its first half… and were really missing what seemed like a richer life back in Sunnydale High. And while I like the idea of associating the military-led The Initiative with cruelty and fascism, I found both its leader Professor Walsh (Lindsay Crouse) and its frat boy soldiers nowhere near as interesting and complex an addition to the Buffyverse as was just about everything else to come in the two creatively gi-normous and sublime seasons that would immediately follow.
Ex Angel fights new beau Riley
With teaching assistant by day/Initiative soldier by night Riley Finn (Marc Blucas) being Buffy’s new love interest, Whedon may have created an opposite of Angel as far as temperament (Angel’s dark and brood-y, Riley’s all gung-ho and upstanding), but with that he chose a performer equally as surface (though at least Angel’s written decently as dark… Riley is just a total stiff). On top of it, the season’s Big Bad takes its time to reveal itself and, when it does, it doesn’t quite raise the stakes as the ones before (or the ones after) and seems far from insurmountable to Buffy and our Scoobies.
The consensus amongst Buffy-ites, or whatever you call the legion of fans (and whatever you do call them, I sheepishly now name myself among them) is that the seventh season was the least of the lot, kind of a haphazardly constructed come-down after one of the greatest television seasons of any show ever, but I’d have to name season four as the least effective. In fact, while season seven had the clear feeling of being one past the show’s perfectly-cultivated narrative arc, with its creative load having been blown the season before (similar to how “Breaking Bad” went wrong in its final season), it might have been lowered expectations going in, but I still found plenty to enjoy in what Whedon played around with; not the least being the expanded role of Buffy’s one-time nemesis, the semi-closeted, queen-y and prone to self-aggrandizing delusions Andrew (Tom Lenk) on one end, and the impressively harrowing presentation of vampire Spike (James Marsters) driven insane as a result of reclaiming of his soul on the other. Speaking of Marsters, let’s be clear… he is perhaps the most impressive recurring actor on the entire show, who manages to turn some of the most maudlin moments in season seven – which there is regrettably a lot of (man, do they all talk about their feelings a lot in that season) — into emotionally powerful and authentic moments (can’t believe I sat next to that guy at a restaurant a decade and a half ago and barely paid attention to him – dismissing him as the star of some silly teen vampire show! – what a maroon).
Still, as weak as it is in comparison to the other seasons, on its own, the fourth season has plenty to offer within its twenty two episodes (hard to believe that was the norm back in the day – no wonder television actors never crossed-over into movies then – they barely had time for anything!), not the least being the simple presence of all the wonderful recurring roles by actors who were almost unerringly cast to bring them to life, with the performers rarely going on to anything else notable in their careers.
The expanding role of Emma Caufield’s vengeance demon Anya, stuck in a human body and trying to unlearn her sociopathic behaviour, as she starts a relationship with downtrodden Xander (Nicholas Brendon), who can’t seem to find a way out of living in his parents’ basement post-high school, is welcome, as she slowly will become one of my favorite characters (who is eventually rewarded with one of the most insightful and touching monologues on the pain and frustration of grieving I’ve ever seen, certainly on television, in the next season). Spike, still a pure villain at this point, continues to reveal himself as having more insight (and tortured sensitivity) than almost every other character on the show, as in the highly amusing episode “The Initiative” in which, from the vantage point of being captured on Giles’ couch, keeps pointing out to the Xander, Giles and Buffy how obviously callous they’re being by pretending Willow is fine rather than dealing with the overt heartbreak the young witch is clearly struggling with after her werewolf boyfriend love Oz (Seth Green) has left for good.
There is the aforementioned “Hush”, an almost entirely silent episode in which the entire town of “Sunnydale” is rendered unable to speak by two genuinely scary (and I don’t say that lightly – they are unsettling for real) demons. Equal parts violently grim and wonderfully amusing, with lots of delightful comic pantomimes mustered up out of the fact that no one can speak, ending on a quietly poignant insight on human behaviour between Buffy and Riley, it musters up the best of everything that the show has to offer, and is high on the list with the greatest singular ‘monster’ episodes of the entire run of the show.
The episode of recurring nerd Jonathan (who tried killing himself in another well realized episode of an earlier season) creating a world in which he’s a superstar (and which Buffy and the Scoobies slowly learn is a construct, even as they’re all fawning over Jonathan) is great fun. The TV-changing introduction of Tara, Willow’s first gay lover (and the clever ways in which each of the characters deals with Willow coming out) is great stuff too (including its ground-breaking full frontal, puckered lips lesbian smooch-ola).
Willow’s coming out
Last, but very far from least, is the concluding episode of the season. Similar to the coda-style finale of the previous season, in which Buffy and rogue slayer Faith (Eliza Dushku) share a sparse Bergmanesque dream of portentous omens and mysterious clues, an increasingly bold Whedon decided to go even more creatively fanciful post-Big Bad ending to Season Four. With Buffy, the Scoobies and Giles drifting off to sleep (watching Apocalypse Now of all things, to relax post-Big Battle), each fall into their own wildly surreal dreamscape; filled with tripped out, frightening and often violent images, with the frighteningly primal First Slayer omni-present behind all of it, the viewer is left somehow understanding the great and ominous portends of things both past and future. Speaking in the experimental and surreal cinematic language on a level with a Jodorowksy (at a time when television shows just weren’t doing this kind of thing!), this is perhaps the show’s greatest, wildest and most transcendent moment – it certainly was up to this point in the series.
While I felt a few pangs over losing Cordelia, I wasn’t sad to see inept watcher Wesley go as I never warmed to his character at all. While it proved interesting to watch their switch over onto Angel ultimately providing Whedon the creative room to allow these two characters to grow beyond their relative punchline status on “Buffy”, “Angel” would still prove itself – at least over the first four of the five seasons I’ve seen so far – while not bad, nowhere near as brilliant, insightful and transcendent as the shining seven of “Buffy” (but more on “Angel” later).
In other words? Even with a by-comparison relatively weak narrative through-line and least impressive of all the season’s Big Bads, this lesser of “Buffy” seasons manages more than its share of brilliance along the way to make it more than worthwhile.