Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 4
May 17, 2003
Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan, James Marsters, Anthony Head, David Boreanaz, Seth Green, Amber Benson, Marc Blucas, Emma Caulfield, Eliza Dushku, George Hertzberg, Kristine Sutherland,
The occult cult that is Buffy the Vampire Slayer reaches its fourth season on DVD, and this time they follow the lead set by Angel season 2 and give us the widescreen version. If you’re new to Buffy be warned, this does contain spoilers.
Season 4 is considered by many of the fans to be the weakest of the series. This is primarily due to the loss of Angel to a series of his own, and the arrival of new romantic lead, Riley. The relocation from Sunnydale High to UC Sunnydale probably carries some of the blame for the negativity also. Fans fear change, particularly as a change to the formula of a series usually spells its cancellation.
Marc Blucas, playing Riley Finn, was always going to be up against opposition from the fans in his attempt to replace David Boreanaz, but a lot of the criticism he came in for was unfounded. Blucas’ acting was even parodied in a later season of Buffy when Spike referred to him as Captain Cardboard. A little harsh but it showed that the makers were aware of audience reaction to Riley. Riley never had a fair trial.
The early Buffy/Riley dynamic is a take on the Batman theme of Bruce Wayne and Sarah Kyle (Catwoman). Each hides a secret identity from the other and is forced to make excuses as to why they must depart a social situation when impending danger arises. They then end up facing each other on the field of battle, not realising that it is in fact the other that they are fighting. Naturally the fact that Buffy doesn’t wear a mask limits the possibilities for this, so a clever fire extinguisher eruption clouds the vicinity, or a hurried encounter in the dead of night causes failure in Riley to notice that it is in fact a slim blonde girl facing him rather than a hulking demon. Go figure?
Season four isn’t the damp squib that some unfairly refer to it as, it’s the one that hauls the series in a new direction and acts as a go between for the small closed scenarios of seasons one – three and the larger picture of five and six. Characters are given threads of development here that allow them to grow in future episodes. Followers of the current series six will know what I mean in relation to Willow!
This season also gave the episode known as ‘Hush’, which is considered by many to be the best of Buffy. Perhaps season six’ ‘Once More with Feeling’ has now surpassed it, but for those episodes available on DVD, it’s the pinnacle. Hush is a genuinely frightening macabre fairytale that looks like it has been designed by Tim Burton, and directed by John Carpenter. Several Demons known as The Gentlemen have arrived in town to collect seven human hearts, and to ensure that their activities are not disturbed they have stolen everyone’s voices. This means that the whole episode is pretty much played out in silence, relying on solid direction and acting to carry the narrative. Hush is Buffy at its most frightening.
We also see Willow grow as a character and forge a new relationship with Tara. Together they explore their interest in witch craft, and the act of spell casting is used as a metaphor for their own personal relationship; which is handled with great subtlety and maturity.
Spike undergoes the important transformation that sees him become the blonde Angel for future episodes. A behavioural modifier chip prevents the big bad from harming any human beings, something which leads to much amusement as his efforts to attack Willow in her own room lead to consolatory comments and suggestions that they can try again later if he wants.
This season does have its flaws though, and being set against the backdrop of college campus frivolity it was always going to drift into cliché. The worst of these moments happens in the episode ‘Beer Bad’ where the heavy handed morality can be diagnosed from the title itself. Yes, it’s bad to drink, drink is the root of all evil and nothing good can come of it. The negative effects of alcohol are amplified however when the beer is tampered with by a warlock’s spell, turning the patrons into Neanderthals. Interference from Warlocks or not, my brother has a similar reaction to alcohol, the very point that is hammered home in this episode!
Had this been set in a UK university rather than a Californian campus, alcohol would have been the least of their worries. ‘Oh my god, you’re drunk’ would be replaced with ‘oh my god, you’re stoned… naked and bungee jumping from the college clock tower.’
America’s hyper sensitive nature is played upon to great effect in the thanks giving episode ‘Pangs’. Every year the Americans give thanks to the Indians for helping the pilgrims through the winter, thus allowing said pilgrims to commit genocide against the Indians the following year. The old chestnut ‘Indian burial ground gets disturbed’ gets desturbed by Xander, allowing an avenging spirit to manifest itself in the guise of an Indian warrior and seek out victims to, well, extract its vengeance.
Willow wants to sympathise with the Indian and help him out, while he tries to kill everyone and Buffy feels guilty about the annihilation of his people, so long as he doesn’t interfere with her thanks giving dinner. Only Giles and Spike, being British you know, are willing to speak the truth using words like ‘massacre’, ‘annihilate’, and ‘wipe out’.
So tetchy are the Americans about their past crimes that Buffy pulls Giles up about referring to the Native Americans as Indians. Giles’ response is classic:
“Ah yes, I keep forgetting not to refer to you lot as bloody colonials.”
As this season progresses it becomes less and less about college life, with hardly a single class attended by anyone in the second half of the series. From a personal point of view though, this does add to the realism.
The campus party is used liberally as a device to get groups of teenagers together for some otherworldly scheme, so much so that Xander even passes comment on it saying
“Why do people keep attending these parties, they turn out so well?”
The main ‘big bad’ of this season sees a government run organisation known as The Initiative residing below UC Sunnydale that captures and experiments on demons. Although this may not seem at all like a bad thing, they are in fact working to a more sinister agenda that, as with all things demon related, goes horribly wrong. Demon-human hybrid soldiers are being created as ultimate weapons for the military. Naturally the prototype, aptly named Adam, escapes to carry on the work himself. This time though the government operatives won’t be the beneficiaries of the hybrid soldiers, they’ll be the ingredients.
Adam is a Frankenstein styled monster with a childlike innocence of the ways of the world. Unfortunately he quickly learns his purpose through a series of gory killings and examinations, and through his programme files that his creator left behind.
Adam arranges for all of the local vampires and demons to allow themselves to be captured by the Initiative, thus providing a handy do-it-yourself carnage creator for when he decides to throw the ‘release all of the demons and let mayhem commence’ switch.
The Slayer’s presence is required in this final battle to ensure that there is an even number of casualties on both the human and demon sides to create spare parts for the hybrid soldiers. The thought that the Slayer might possibly stop Adam altogether is something that doesn’t trouble him in the slightest. That’s usually where all powerful demons make their mistake.
The season takes the unusual step of having a prologue episode after the climactic end of season battle. ‘Restless’ sees the four main protagonists Buffy, Willow, Xander and Giles winding down with a few videos after their adventures only to be hunted in their dream state by a primeval force. This episode is very reminiscent of Star Trek in its attempts to portray a dream state. Bizarre imagery and symbolism are used to convey emotions and fears as each of the four is hunted by this force. As an episode it delves too far into filmic cliché, but it does have important references to earlier episodes and acts as a precursor to future seasons. They also try out the notion of a musical episode by having Giles croon a few lines of dialogue; this was a successful experiment that reaped its rewards later.
So is season four the weakest of the Buffys? At its best it’s better than ever, but the money and screen time that is used on the Initiative does come at a price. The emphasis isn’t as strong on the Scooby gang causing their influence to dwindle slightly on the direction of the story. This is a minor gripe however, as this season genuinely does set up future seasons for the dizzy heights that they achieve.